The Greatest Meal: Pinning Down Ephemera


Burger, rare.

Meals come and go.

At restaurants, they get set in front of you and then they are removed, with a small bustle and clatter and then they disappear. Refined smears of sauce or edible flowers become garbage very quickly. Remnants are packaged up sometimes, but what you bring home rarely approaches the original, though pasta comes close.

When you contemplate your favorite meal, visions of platters past swim into your ken, and you begin separating the food experience from the social experience. Eating is one of our most social activities, after all. And when you call yourself a foodie or a hot dog diarist, meals take on a significance bordering on the absurd.

That hot dog at Wrigley becomes mythic, that slice of pizza from Gigio’s that you ate on the curb with an RC Cola takes on the filtered hue of a fable, and that chicken and noodle dish that your mother used to make makes you practically ache for more – right now – and the frustration mounts because it can no longer be enjoyed. To quote King Lear: “Thou’lt come no more! Never, never, never, never, never!”

So we celebrate the great meals, the great times with friends and family, and appreciate the absolute ephemera of food in context with our time here on earth. But a great meal is not ephemeral – is it forever.

Here’s one. I’m about nine years old, and my father is cooking one of the few things he knows how to make: hamburgers. He puts a block of butter in the frying pan, and it slides and bubbles. While that is going on, he offers me a piece of the raw meat, rolled into a small meatball with salt and pepper on it, and it is delicious. It’s the hunter/gatherer sharing the kill with his young.

The burgers are placed on the hot skillet, and you’d swear, the sound that comes up from the skillet is like applause. The burgers are made rare. They are juicy and fine, and a thick slice of an heirloom tomato adds grace and acidity. It’s the best thing ever. The lightly toasted bun gleams. “Gunsmoke” is on TV, my hair is wet from my bath, God’s in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

Since then, I have gorged on hot dogs (of course), fabulous homemade lasagna, steaks done to a turn with char on the outside and pink in the middle (due to a rest in cornstarch before cooking – a family secret). Meals mean something. They not only sustain us, literally, but they stitch themselves into our collective memory, and we grow that wonderful fabric with every outing that involves food.

One of my greatest meals of all time was a salami sandwich from 7-11 that I ate on a Chicago street with a friend. It’s a keeper.



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