Everyone has strong, wonderful memories imprinted with food — especially “comfort food” — and they are often the simplest, most uncomplicated repasts imaginable. Jamie Oliver has built his entire career around this very principle (remember when he was the much younger “Naked Chef” and it wasn’t him, it was the food?) Meals that let superior ingredients sing their own praises. Back to basics.
Like many people, I’ve had plenty of expensive dinners at fine restaurants and in many cases all I remember is the bill and a sinking regret.
Conversely, I have often enjoyed many happy meals (no pun intended) either in my car or in the open air with minimum fuss and a set of plastic cutlery.
One such meal occurred when I was a teenager during my first Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, complete with a traditional supper cooked slowly over a fire. The night air was bitingly cold with a breeze provided by the North Atlantic; we had to stamp our feet to keep warm. The Guy effigy was good-to-go in his chair but as soon as I got that steaming foil packet with a crispy, charred potato, sinking with Irish butter and strong grated Cheddar in my mitted hand, I forgot all else. Lean sausages followed in a soft, floury bap and we washed it down with Pils lager. Amazing.
On another occasion we were travelling in the US and just needed a quick bite. We were bracing ourselves for another round of bad-mood-inducing fast-food when a small white stand appeared in the parking lot like a mirage. I first saw the triband of the Argentinian flag and then as we drew closer, a poised, older woman sitting quietly on a cooler. I could smell the deep, savoury goodness of simmering spices and tomatoes. My brain immediately brought forward every warning article I’ve ever read about sketchy street food but my partner shrugged: “Let’s try it.” And so it came to pass that we leaned on our car, stretching out our backs and eating celestial empanadas greedily, from floppy paper plates in companionable silence, dragging the pastry through tomatillo sauce, the soft filling running down our chins. Each of us had intentionally chosen a different filling (grimly deciding to go down together) but I am ashamed now for thinking that way. I made sure to run back to the woman and tell her how delicious they really were and she smiled shyly but I could see she was pleased.
Fast-forward to another car-trip (this time in New England). We had intended to stop at a place recommended by locals for superior seafood. But when we arrived, there were line-ups. Faint with hunger, we opted to get what we thought would be a “snack” of fried clams to share on our way elsewhere. But since this was the US, the smallest serving of fried clams was actually the size of a child’s sand-pail.
Reader, we sat in the car listening to the seagulls cawing back and forth across the marshlands and ate every one. They were divine! Each long pillowy strip of clam was lightly crumbed before being deep-fried and was devoid of greasiness. They tasted exactly like the sea. I didn’t want that meal to end or to see the bottom of our … bucket. I had to tip the passenger seat back on the way home and lie very, very still.
There are dozens of other stories like this and it’s really difficult to articulate why each was so special at that time. Maybe it’s just because so much heady emotion is involved. Maybe it’s the same fondness that causes people to yearn for their Mom’s soup, even if it was only from a can …
Sue Sutherland Wood is a freelance writer and regular contributor to eatdrink. Read more of Sue’s work on her blog www.speranzanow.com.