I went to an event on Monday night called The Best Thing I Ever Ate that was hosted at a restaurant called Northern Quarter in Victoria.
Six chefs and foodie types shared their stories. It was hosted by Eat Magazine and as I sat there listening to each of them telling their somewhat convoluted stories because, after all, they are chefs, not storytellers, it was clear that they couldn’t really describe the best thing they’d ever eaten. Because it wasn’t just about the food. What they were really describing was the experience that surrounded the food: who they were with, the ambiance of the place and the memories associated with the combinations of a whole bunch of elements that meshed together to create a kaleidoscope of a meal that was elevated to an experience to create a lasting memory.
Whether it was with a favourite grandmother or at a Michelin starred establishment that didn’t live up to expectations in spite of every technical preciseness on paper, the parameters around what actually goes into creating what might be worthy of the category, the best thing you’ve ever eaten, were about every aspect of sharing and intimacy and taste forming a moment that won’t ever come again in such a sublime way.
Maybe we’ve all been lucky enough to experience the moment of a special occasion. You can see it in your mind’s eye. The din of a restaurant engulfing us after we’ve enjoyed the delicious and aesthetically designed art on a plate that enlivened our palates. It’s almost always the coming together of ambiance, company, presentation and taste that makes a meal especially memorable it would seem.
Whenever anyone suggests that food is just fuel for the body, I am a little pained by that approach to eating because it tells me a lot about their overall approach to life. Utilitarian. Not a romantic bone in their body. Yes. Okay. I’ll concede. Sometimes food is just fuel for the body. Breakfast, perhaps. But that should be a mere side-note in a delicious life-long story.
Listening to these stories began to awaken some memories that I hadn’t thought about for quite some time.
I travelled back to 1979 when our high school basketball coach would treat the eight of us on the team to the kind of high end restaurant that most of us from where I grew up wouldn’t typically get taken to. We went to Hy’s encore in downtown Vancouver and a wonderfully cozy small restaurant in Gastown that I vaguely recall may have been named La Bourginon or Le Rendezvous or something like that. We would get all dressed up, trade in the locker room talk to attempt to mimic the young lady persona and for five years in the spring, after another successful season, we’d be decadently treated. I hadn’t thought about that for such a long time until I pondered this storytelling evening.
I think back to the now no longer Baker Beach Resort on Salt Spring. A small dining room, all dark wood and elegance, a model of a sailing ship on the mantle of a wooden fireplace, and every aesthetic detail a fit, a classic, sophisticated, delicious, special meal shared by my live-in boyfriend after we’d cleaned up from a very hot, long cycle around the island.
I thought about being in Finland at 19 and my Finnish host family, wanting to be good neighbours by helping a nearby farm family to bale their hay. The women of the farmhouse toiled away in the kitchen all morning so that at lunch, those of us baling the hay were called into convene outside at a long table where thick slabs of roast beef were doled onto plates, boiled potatoes were handed around, and steaming vegetables from their garden had been sauteed to a crunchy perfection. We took a break for an hour-long meal before grabbing our pitchforks and getting back to what was very hard labour. I didn’t know what was being said around that table because of the language barrier but can still feel the feelings of camaraderie of that long ago summer afternoon.
I recall in the early ’90s sitting down in an open field in Salmon Arm, the son and daughter-in-law of my landlady at that time hosting a wonderful Sunday dinner in their expansive backyard space. There was a long table covered in a white tablecloth and handpicked wild flowers in little vases that dotted the length of the table. As the warmth of a summer sun set, its golden light glinting of the wine glasses in the fresh air, the Fly mountains loomed in the distance to create a scene worthy of a film set.
There was that one perfectly seasoned tender rack of lamb encrusted with rosemary and breadcrumbs curated by Bob Watters, the husband of my friend Anne. I’ve had so many delicious meals at one of their many tables, replete with good company and conversation.
And another memory of being in Oxford and walking along the canal, the low slung canal boats bumping against their moorings as we made our way to a restaurant close to the pub where Morse, as in Inspector Morse, used to drink. What a treat to be taken to Brasserie Blanc, a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, Raymond Blanc. I recall that my new acquaintance had the fois gras. Unfortunately, I don’t recall what I ate – pork medallions pop to mind as a maybe – but that doesn’t surprise me given how awestruck I was by so many other aspects of that special evening.
Fancy, however, is but one way to impress. So many memories. as well, of sitting in a dilapidated float home on the Fraser River, the defining love of my life concocting on his two burner hotplate a wicked Chinese-styled meal of prawns, chow mein and bok choy, as the brown water gently rocked the boat and our conversation took hold. The most unlikely of romantic locations and yet…
I encourage you to take a while and just think about how you might answer that question. What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten, and why? Linger over your memories a while and see what you catch. Is it the exquisite scent of a four cheese Mac and cheese or the heaven of the scent of berries in a field ripe for picking, or that first taste of the best bread you’ve ever had oily with a fat slab of butter or cream cheese. Take a minute to dredge up some long forgotten exquisitely special time when the food and the company merged to create the sublime. And if you’re so inclined, I’ve love to hear about it.