People find solace in all kinds of things — family, church, shoe collections, rusting cars in the hot summer sun — they all collect memories. Some of us get comfort from gilded plates or in greasy take-out bags from the corner bistro. Food can simply return us to familiar, comforting moments. The smell of a dish alone can evoke the most complex of emotions: revelations of success, the smell of a first date, the taste of love on a moonlit night. Food ties us all to our pasts. In a way, what we eat never leaves us.
For me, someone who deals in food like a gambler counting a five-deck shoe, food memories are particularly strong: growing up in the banquet kitchens of Ocean City, Maryland; arriving to the grits and gravies of the Lowcountry; cooking fresh shrimp in a backyard pot; eating a bubbling brew of crawfish in a drunken French Quarter stupor; smelling the blood of a freshly-skinned deer — these memories shaped my palate. There is much pain for me in watching the comings and goings in the restaurant world, and the inevitable closing of some favorite haunt, where my memories still linger.
No more burgers will ever spring from the seasoned black griddle at This is Your Place, even if the thing only moved across the river. I won't ever again be able to take a leisurely stroll through the horse turds and tank tops of the market and return to the office with the smell of grease wafting from every flap of fabric and lock of hair. The juice of a luscious bacon jalapeño burger with cheese will never again run clear off my elbows, into the countless names scratched into the table by diners with sharp pen knives.
I remember the last meal I ate at Latasha's Taste of New Orleans with my future wife and a friend in town on business. We were more apt to machismo then, and Latasha's offered the perfect foil for contest. The order wasn't important, the capsicum level was — and you know a place takes its chiles seriously when the chef comes out to make sure you really wanted to order it extra hot. He brandished his tiny saucepot of fire, supposedly about five pounds of habañero peppers reduced to a cupful of molten lava, before admonishing us that once he fixed it, he wouldn't take it back.
An order of jambalaya, a rare ribeye steak, three pitchers of ice water, and 30 minutes of feckless daring left me in the tiny bathroom, head beneath the faucet in a desperate attempt to quell the pain. My friend was a heap of involuntary tears and swollen lips — and the proud owner of a new take-home box heaped with a quarter order of the hottest jambalaya known to man — yet he would not be denied. He finished it the next morning for breakfast; I've admired him ever since.
I actually sat down across the street and stared at Alice's Fine Foods in disbelief one awful day, on the way there for lunch, only to find the place boarded and barred, and with it a palpable loss — for the tall skinny guy in the black tuxedo (I never did catch his name) that might have been the most professional waiter I've ever known, for the sweetest tea on the upper peninsula, matched only by the syrup served over at Martha Lou's, for the mythical stuffed pork chop, so big, so downright barbaric, that it could require a nap; it once left me on the couch with a loosened belt when I should have returned to work.
I ate at Alice's at least once a week, usually with friends or family, sometimes on a Sunday morning with Ann Caldwell crooning from the corner, a plate of stuffed shrimp and okra making the whole world seem alright, but you always thought it would be there next week, next year. It's a bad day when the best collards in town go by the wayside. I sometimes catch a passing whiff of something delectably similar, and I'm taken back to that place, as vividly as any other lost love, real or imagined, and I know the power of food.
These memories fade like signposts in a rearview mirror, but they're soon replaced. Pork chops at Alice's give way to the new truffle tasting menu at McCrady's, a sweet "chewy" at Ledy's Soul Food, or the rebirth of Bowen's Island, which happily refused to die. Perhaps that's hope, the promise of a new meal, a better deal on the next dealt hand.
Some things are irreplaceable, but each loss prepares us for tomorrow's gain. After all, food isn't linear, it's cyclical — three times every day, plus dessert.