I recently read “The Man Who Ate the World.” The author is a restaurant critic in London who decided to tour the world’s finest, most famous, and most expensive restaurants in search of ‘the perfect meal.’ This would be the meal in which the menu was planned so that each course complimented and built on the others, every plate of food was ideally prepared and presented, the service attendant, the wines well-matched, and the surrounding appropriate, culminating in a near-religious experience.
It didn’t happen. Although he dined at legendary restaurant on food prepared by culinary masters, spending more on a single dinner than a family of four spends on a month’s groceries, he had only one meal which met his criteria, but it did not leave him feeling superbly and sublimely satisfied.
Which got me thinking about “what makes the perfect meal?” Does it depend on expensive ingredients and exotic techniques? Elegant surroundings? And if you do have a ‘perfect’ meal, do you never eat again because all else will be a disappointment?
Or is there something else that makes a meal memorable? As a travel writer, I’ve enjoyed meals at some fabulous places, but I honestly can’t remember many of them. What I do remember are some of the occasions and the people. Like one of my first press trips. It was in Florida. It was one of those rare occasions when you met a group of total strangers but before you’ve left the airport parking lot, you decided that you’d known and liked each other in a past life. Our last night was at a restaurant overlooking a lake. It was prom night and the kids were all there in tuxes and gowns, glowing with the excitement of the evening. When the wait staff handed us the dessert menu, we laughed and asked for one of each. Within minutes, a lazy Susan appeared on the table with one of every dessert and a spoon for each of us. I don’t even recall the desserts, although I’m sure that much chocolate was involved. But that was close to a perfect meal.
Living on the Chesapeake, we have lots of those meals. The first time my father met my soon-to-be husband – a Long Islander by birth. Hey, it’s not his fault! – there was some sizing up to be done. Ron is an engineer (“You’ll never starve”) and he drank his Jack Daniels straight (ice in good whiskey is an abomination). We were going to my sister’s for crabs that night. “Do you know how to pick crabs?” “Once you show me, I will.” Over a bushel of crabs and beer, they bonded. Or the time we took our British friend Nigel to The Red Roost on the 4th of July. Nigel used to captain supertankers. He’s eaten at every port in the world, but he'd never seen a steamed crab, much less eaten one. So we picked crabs as we watched the fireworks. Or my habit of taking a box or three of Berger cookies to every horseback riding clinic I attend and sharing them with new (and old) riding friends. Introducing a visiting farrier from Tennessee to stuffed rockfish at Boonies. The annual pot-luck for the CSA held at Westside Community Center in Tyaskin where everyone brings something made from veggies and chickens grown by local farmers.
When the kayak trails opened on Smith Island, a ferry full of media types and dignitaries cruised out to the island for a day’s paddling. When we arrived, the islanders greeted us with lunch: crab cakes made from crustaceans who’d been swimming in the Chesapeake that morning, homemade slaw, corn-on-the-cob, iced tea, and – of course – many varieties of Smith Island cake. We ate on picnic tables overlooking the Bay, enjoying each other’s company and the day’s adventure. The breeze was cool; the clouds were scuttling across the sky, the seagulls loudly reminding us that they were available for leftovers. If that wasn’t perfect, it was as close as I need to come. Who needs Michelin stars when the Bay is shining in the sunlight?