Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a time for prayerful fasting and a deepening of one’s relationship with God. At the end of Lent is Easter when the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated. But what comes before Lent? Mardi gras! Mardi gras is French for “fat Tuesday,” and it’s the day immediately preceding the beginning of Lent when everyone tries to get all the sin out of their system before embarking on a season of asceticism. The biggest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. Is in New Orleans where revelers are intoxicated twenty-four hours a day. People are exchanging second base for beads, gorging on beignets, muffulettas, and jambalaya. While I’ve been to Mardi Gras three times in New Orleans and once in Galveston, I have never grown to enjoy the festivities. It’s just too dirty and disgusting in all matters of the words. Each subsequent year, I kept telling myself, Okay, just give it one more try; maybe you’ll like it this time. Nope. Hated it every time. Being a neat freak and germaphobe, I could not stand the beer, vomit, and piss all over the streets, the mystery hands grabbing my butt, the nasty half-naked sweaty dudes trying to kiss and fornicate with any female that passes by. What I can appreciate about Fat Tuesday, though, is the food.
I have been thinking a lot about food lately. Okay, so it’s not just lately. I think about food a lot. Sometimes it’s so bad, I lie awake in bed thinking about what I will cook the next day. I lie there thinking about it for thirty minutes, an hour, more. And then I blame my insomnia on Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO).
A question that always arises during leisure conversation, especially when it’s a gathering of food lovers, is, “What would be your last meal?” My husband’s last meal would likely be a juicy hamburger cooked to a perfect medium. I, on the other hand, have five last meals. I like to call them courses, thank-you-very-much.
Christine’s Last Meal
(and the Life Lessons They Teach)
- Sushi or sashimi. And preferably sake (raw salmon. And preferably the extra fatty kind. The first time I had sushi was in college. I tried a piece of tuna. It tasted fishy, and I hated it. I gave it another try in college—probably tried a salmon—and immediately, the love began. After that, it became one of my favorite things to eat. Sometimes it takes more than once to get on board. Don’t give up. (Heed that advice for not just strange cuisine but anything in life.)
- New York-style cheese pizza. Unlike sushi, my love for cheese pizza stems from childhood. I was always at the mall for one reason or another (my mama liked to shop or I had ice skating lessons), and my preferred mall meal was always a slice of thin-crust cheese pizza either from Sbarro or Brother’s Pizza (depending on which mall I was at). I would proceed to dump a sick amount of parmesan cheese over my already cheesy pizza before eating. I’m talking an insane amount, enough to make people at the next table hold their noses at the stinky cheese, enough for the pizza men to tell me they’d have to start charging me for the otherwise gratuitous condiment. What can I say? I love my cheese. I like to judge a pizza on three things: (1) the crust (is it thin and flaky enough with that wholesome yeasty taste?); (2) the tomato sauce (is it thick with enough herbs?); and (3) the cheese, of course (is it the right amount, and does it taste like mozzarella and not cardboard?). So needless to say, all the other toppings just get in the way of my true enjoyment. Sometimes, you just need to simplify your life. (Another piece of advice you can take outside of this food context.)
- My mama’s egg rolls. My mama made the best Vietnamese egg rolls. The skin is fried to a crispy and golden brown perfection. The inside is a burst of flavor and texture. I used to eat these plain—no vermicelli, no fish sauce, no romaine lettuce. Like the pizza, I liked my egg rolls simple. My mama passed away when I was fourteen, and she’d never written down her recipes so her egg rolls, noodle soups, and other comfort dishes I grew up eating were forever lost to me. After college, though, I tried to recreate her egg rolls by reverse engineering. I recalled the colors and smells of the filling mixture and just went from there. I’m happy to say they turned out very close to hers. For a long time, I also did not write down the recipe, instead, tweaking ingredients here and there each time I made them. I realized that good food, cooking, and life in general are often not bound by strict standards. Things are not black and white. You have to learn to bend a little and be willing to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty.
- Fried chicken. Another comfort food from childhood. (Have you noticed a pattern here? It’s like my foods are getting unhealthier and unhealthier.) My dad used to bring home paper boxes full of Church’s, Hartz, or Popeye’s (when the occasion was special). (I never got KFC—too expensive.) My favorite pieces were always the drumsticks. In fact, here’s a funny story for your amusement about my love for chicken legs. In third grade, I had just moved to a new part of town. During my first week of school, my new friend and I were eating lunch together in the cafeteria. “Do you have thirty cents?” she asked. “You can get a drumstick.” My eyes widened. “You can?” Intrigued, I fished quarter and nickel from my pocket and followed my friend into line. When it was my turn, I asked for a drumstick, sliding the coins across the counter. “Here you go,” the cafeteria lady said. And in my eager hands, she dropped a…wait for it…Nestle ice cream cone a.k.a. drumstick! I was so disappointed with my ice cream. How I longed for that juicy chicken leg. The lesson here is life will not always hand you what you want or what you’re expecting. Just deal with it and embrace the changes. Who knows? Maybe you’ll become a lover of ice cream drumsticks, too.
- Noodle soup. You need something hot and soupy to wash down all the grease, right? My last course would be a steaming hot bowl of some sort of noodle soup. It could be pho (pronounced “fuh”), the Vietnamese noodle soup my mama also excelled at cooking; ramen (the authentic Japanese kind, not the twenty-cent package from the grocery store); or won ton noodle soup (it has to be from this hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in my old ‘hood called Chino—don’t judge the name). Yes, nothing like some warm liquids to break down all the fatty foods I’d just eaten. In fact, that’s why the Chinese drink hot tea with their dim sum. It’s so satisfying (especially during these cold winter days) to slurp hot, hearty soup. Here’s another funny anecdote. Last February, John and I went snowboarding and skiing in Breckenridge. We visited Erin and her husband one night, and when they asked us what we wanted to eat for dinner, we chose instant ramen. Even though Erin had a homemade lasagna, we opted for cheap-ass instant noodles. (Okay, so I ate both the ramen and the lasagna.) The lesson here? Enjoy life! Be grateful for what you’re blessed with: the roof over your head, the vacations when you’re tired of that roof over your head, the snow, the sun, the rain, the ostensible ability to eat whatever you want whenever you want, the freedom of choice, what you have of your health, the people and animals in your lives.
Oh, and I can’t forget the after dinner piece of extra dark chocolate. So there you have it: my last meal in the exact order I’d consume it. What are some of your favorite foods?
P.S. Just to prove to you how much I’ve been thinking about food lately, read the other blogs I write and join me in my obsession. Looks like I’ll need to give up something food-related for Lent.