May it Please the Palate: Memorable Meals

A friend recently described her most memorable meal to me. She was alone, in Italy. She told me who else was in the restaurant, what their profession was, what language they spoke. But the food merited barely a mention. Why is that?

Think back on your own memorable meals. I bet it wasn't the food. It was the combination of the setting, the company, and the unexpected. Let me offer a few of mine.

I was in Greece with my father. (Setting, company) We were in a restaurant in Piraeus, the port city near Athens. The restaurant was neither fancy, nor well-appointed. There was no menu. The proprietor brought dish after dish after dish. We had no idea what was coming. (The unexpected) The food probably wasn't fabulous - but we still can't stop talking about that meal.

Again Greece, with my wife. Again in Piraeus, a seafood restaurant along the harbor. I remember my wife laughed as we were walking to the restaurant because a dog jumped out and startled me. When we got to the place, we sat outside. We were full satisfied, and I asked for the bill.

"But you have one more dish coming," the proprietor replied, something I had apparently lost in the translation.

It was a grilled whole fish, probably a kilo size, with skin crackling, the flaky filet served simply with olive oil and lemon. Despite what we'd eaten already, we finished most of it. Then the proprietor brought an unexpected dessert. Then a bottle (yes, a bottle) of a raisin liqueur called something like Stafylina, a play on the Greek word for "grape." I kept the bottle a long time.

Camping once in the Smokies with our young daughter, we went to a trout farm. She caught a fish! We grilled it in the campfire in aluminum foil, and served it with butter. My 6-year-old gobbled it up.

But for all these stories, can I tell you exactly what was served, or how it was prepared? Probably not. But I can tell you everything else about it. That's what made the meals memorable for me.

Yes, there are some fabulous restaurants out there. I persuaded a friend to eat with me once at Charlie Trotter's, a five-star restaurant in Lincoln Park near Chicago. What I chiefly recall about that experience was the bill --and the fact that when I returned to the hotel, I was still hungry, and bought a microwaved Hot Pocket and a bag of potato chips from the hotel concession.

As for things I've cooked, I remember them not for the recipe I created, but for other reasons. Like the one time I worked all day on a bouillabaisse, but served my guests a White Castle and Snickers bar, as a joke. (One of the guests pouted when I took away the Slider.) Or the time I was happily making Red Snapper Vera Cruz, by myself in a West Virginia cabin, until my sisters persuaded me to bring the whole operation into the main cabin, where my cousins' little kids were screaming and running into my legs while I was cooking.

So while I would never presume that any recipe I created would linger in anyone's memory, I do hope that some of the good times that went with those meals are otherwise fondly recalled.

What were some of your most memorable meals?

Published: Thu, Oct 18, 2012

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