A Great Meal Requires More Than Great Food

I like to eat. Some quick math reveals that I’ve eaten just over 42,000 meals in my life. Although that’s assuming three meals a day, and, as I said, I like to eat, so let’s just call it 43,000.

That’s a lot of meals. Probably a few tons of food, and literally hundreds of different locations. ChicagoNow’s communal writing challenge for this month is to “Write about the greatest meal you've ever had.”

But how do I choose just one?

Meals associated with holidays always come to mind. Thanksgivings with grandparents when I was a kid, a Christmas dinner in which I completely undercooked a roast, and, of course, the first holiday meal we hosted at our house.

Green Zebra has been the location of a number of outstanding meals. Gioco. Lucrezia. And a number of now-defunct restaurants: Karyn’s on Green, Rhapsody, Hannah’s, Eataly, and perhaps the greatest, Open Hearth. Bennigan's, too!

Meals on vacation are always fun. We ate at a Fuddrucker’s near Orlando in 2009 that I remember being out of this world. And a Cici’s Pizza during that same trip that was memorable for a reason that will make you lose your appetite. We had a meal at a Mexican place in La Jolla after a day at the beach that was particularly satisfying, and an Irish pub across the street from the Pentagon made us happy, too.

These meals stand out for a variety of reasons, but they all have one thing in common: I wasn’t eating alone during any of them.

Eating is one of the most basic human social activities. Although food may differ across cultures, the act of getting together with other people to share the eating experience is universal. People want to eat with other people no matter where you are.

And where we eat, how we eat, who we’re eating with, can even affect the taste of our food.

I listened to a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design—I’ve always wondered what that stood for!) talk the other day where the speaker—I can’t remember who it was—mentioned a restaurant that has two Michelin stars (that means it’s really good) that put a lot of work into the entire dining experience, not just the food.

For instance, when diners arrive at the restaurant they’re not immediately served. Everyone’s sitting around, waiting to eat. On each table is squeezable chicken toy (or something similar) that makes noise. Inevitably, someone will squeeze it, the thing will make a noise, and everyone will laugh. Then, because everyone has this thing on their table, other people will start to do it, and in a few seconds, everyone’s squeezing these things and laughing.

And that’s when the first course comes out.

Everyone loves the place, both because the food is good, and because they feel good, happy, entertained, whatever, when they begin eating.

So what makes a good meal? It’s impossible to pin down.

One thing’s for sure though, it’s more than just food. The food is important. Charlie Chaplin’s shoe wouldn’t have tasted any better in The Gold Rush if he was eating it in a beachside restaurant with people he loved.

But the food isn’t everything.

Food will taste better if we surround ourselves with people we love. It will taste better if it’s a special occasion, and if we’re in a special location.

And that’s because food is more than just science. We don’t just taste with our mouths. In fact, from a science perspective, much of our tasting is done through scent with our noses. But even food that tastes and smells good can be less-than-fulfilling if we share it with lousy company, or when not in a good state of mind.

So the greatest meal I’ve ever had? I don’t know. I can’t pin down just one.

I think that means that I’ve often been surrounded by people that I love. And that’s greater than any food could ever be.

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