My Decade in Food
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
This is not a novel idea. Thanks to Helen Rosner's beautiful piece in The New Yorker, I've been inspired to create my own recorrido of the 2010s in food. It should be noted that ten years ago I was a mere 15-year-old, and I can't promise that this list will include any memorable meals from my final years of adolescence, but I will make the great effort to not discriminate any worthy or memorable bites.
As Rosner reminds us, so often it's not at all about what we ate, but rather where, when, why, how, and with whom. The plate of spaghetti bolognese that I ate at the top of a mountain on the well-kept-secret Italian island of Ischia was most likely mediocre, but I remember it as the best damn plate of spaghetti I had ever come across. This glowing review is undoubtedly due to the sweet nostalgia attached to the memories of my first trip to Italy, where I went at the ripe age of 18, with two high school friends who continue to hold important places in my life. An unobstructed view of the coast through the window next to which we sat and fresh-squeezed lemonade that accompanied said meal surely didn't hurt.
That same trip held some incredibly special snacks, like 2 A.M. croissants from secret bakeries in Florence that I am quite certain were objectively good, and a heart-shaped margarita pizza that was worth repeating in our few short days in the city. A fried cone of fresh catch of the day enjoyed aside the Mediterranean and accompanied by vibrant strawberries and pink Prosecco in the seaside town of Riomaggiore was illuminated by the golden hour glow reflected off the quaint bay. A bay that is no longer quite so quaint, as when I returned with my mother this May 2019, five years later, and repeated that exact meal, we were joined by a considerably higher number of tourists.
I've never considered Italian to be my favorite cuisine, so the fact that many of my favourites of the decade consist of pizza or pasta, bread and cheese, makes me question whether or not I've been missing the key to my gastronomical bliss all along. That trip to Italy with my mom last year? We found a nondescript local spot in the Jewish quarter of Rome where my cacio e pepe came in a bowl of crusted parmesan, and after the first bite I was almost in tears. There is no such thing as too much Grana Padano.
A few months later, subconsciously choosing to eat Italian food once again, I was blown away by the balance and flavour that Cookshop in Chelsea had achieved in their eggplant lasagna. To quote myself, "lemon and tomato perfectly accompanied rich, milky cheeses, and the eggplant was cooked to silky perfection". It was perfectly paired with a chilled Cab Franc, our poor polite waiter putting up with Recker family antics, and the balminess of Manhattan at dusk in July.
Enough of the Italian food (I live in Spain, after all). My best friend Morgan and I took a trip to Valencia back in 2018. Valencia is the birthplace of paella, which contrary to popular believe is not traditionally prepared with seafood, but rather chicken and rabbit, which is of course how we had it. We had almost topped off a bottle of wine between the two of us by the time our massive pan of saffrony rice arrived. For some reason, our order took much longer than those of neighboring tables, and the anticipation after almost an hour and a half wait perhaps contributed to our enthusiasm. If I remember correctly, we finished the entire pan, which was no small feat.
Another dominant cuisine of the decade has been Venezuelan, as I have been dating a Venezuelan for over two years now. But my first introductions were thanks to a Venezuelan coworker I had from 2015-2017. She brought pan de jamón to our office Thanksgiving party, and from that moment on there was no going back. Soft and chewy dough wrapped around ham, olives, and raisins. The combination sounds less than pleasant but the result is delightful, and I've made it with my boyfriend more than once.
Another typical Venezuelan holiday cuisine are hallacas, and I was fortunate enough to not only taste but also experience the communal process that these tamale-like specialties require. In December 2018 I had about a dozen people over to my house to undertake the laborious, time-consuming task that hallacas demand. Everyone was able to take home the fruits of their labor, and we enjoyed ours on Christmas Eve, as tradition orders.
But unlike Helen Rosner, I cannot so much pin down specific gastronomical moments, but rather dishes and the people associated with them. Before I moved to Spain, my grandma prepared me my favorite chicken salad for lunch and her creamy, always-perfect chicken paprikash for dinner, two of my all-time favorites, both of which have a special place in my heart. When I would stop at my Grandparents' house on the way to and from my college town, she would make them special for me, and I could always devour them like they were the last food left on the planet.
And her chilli. Oh her chilli. Light on the beans, heavy on the meat, almost not spicy at all. Its how I survived Midwest winters, as she would make it in army-sized batches and freeze it for the whole family. Annual ski trips up to Northern Michigan were fueled by Grandma's chilli and Aunt Lori's white chocolate party mix.
My other grandmother, who passed away a few years back, also had an excellent hand in the kitchen, and I remember the last time we made one of her specialties, corn fritters. Greasy, but not too much that you didn't like it, and with the perfect hint of sweetness. Her unfailing pancakes, like her chocolate chip cookies, were flat. Sweet, almost crispy, unforgivably buttery.
My mom learned from her mom, and we rarely ate out or ordered in with her. Chicken walnut was always the special occasion meal at her and my stepmom Kristin's house. Umami chicken, green peppers, and walnuts (before we knew what umami was) served with minute rice and canned mandarin oranges. You couldn't have made it better in a restaurant if you wanted to. And New Year's Day, aside from sledding and football, meant clam dip with Ruffles, bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, and a spread of holiday treats, Christmas tree cookies and peanut butter balls among them.
This article could easily turn into a book. Panera broccoli cheddar soup in a bread bowl with extra bread on the side. Leo's Coney Island chicken finger pita. Jennifer's Cafe carrot chicken soup. The BTB gringo burrito and Pizza House feta bread. My first successful tortilla de patatas. Post-climbing excursion migas from the manchego town of Sigüenza. Dark chocolate on fresh-baked french bread toasted on a camp stove for breakfast every day for a week. And stuffing, in every way, shape, and form.
All of the former will mean little to you, reader, granted you're not someone who grew up in West Bloomfield, went to the University of Michigan, and now lives in Spain. And even if you were that someone, your "Decade in Food" would undoubtedly differ greatly from mine. My meals seem to pale in comparison with the gourmet tasting menus and caviar sandwiches of The New Yorker's "roving food correspondent". But that's the beauty of it. As Helen Rosner so importantly reminds us, eating is such a personal, situational experience. It nourishes not only our body, but also the fabric of our lives. I only hope that I am lucky enough to enjoy even half of the experiences and meals that are listed here in the decade to come