When my friend Rebecca and I were in high school, we regularly amused ourselves in boring classes by writing our Top 10 lists of Boys We Liked. It was fun to see who emerged as frontrunners, who sank into oblivion, which unattainables were under consideration. It was less fun when our history teacher confiscated a note from under one foot as it was sliding toward another.
Be assured I'm not going (Aaron Eckhart, Viggo Mortenson, Dave Fish) to write another such (George Clooney) top ten list. Instead, in honour of last night's fabulous supper, I'd like to try to itemize my top 10 most memorable meals of all time.
In chronological order:
1. I met a guy at a youth conference when I was in grade 10. He lived forty-five minutes away, but long distance by telephone. We "dated" -- largely by letter and brief telephone call -- for a year. On our anniversary, he sent me a dozen long-stemmed red roses and borrowed his brother's car to take me out to dinner. We went to a steak house near the Toronto airport where we ate steak and where he tricked me into trying the first espresso coffee of my life. And then he never ever called me again. I think it was that, rather than the espresso, that made the bitterness so unforgettable.
2. In the fall of my grade 13 year, my grandparents decided to take a spontaneous trip to Mexico City to surprise their son, my uncle, who was there on business. They invited me along. I bought leather and silver, looked at fine art, gilded cathedrals, damage from a recent earthquake and more. I drank Mexican beer and ate beans, beans and more beans. We were there for a week. I think it was the last day when I spotted a Kentucky Fried Chicken. After a solid week of beans, something that would have seemed cheap and tawdry at home had a glow to it. I didn't care if that glow was saturated fat. I was having me a drumstick.
3. Dave and I spent a month in Australia a year after we were married. We arrived in Melbourne by plane and took a bus into the city. We were waiting to transfer to the area where we thought we might look for a hotel, when someone asked us where we were going. We mentioned the neighbourhood. "Oh," she said. "That's where the pros, addicts and killahs live." I could handle ladies of the evening and drugs, but killers were another matter. We took her advice and a different bus and ended up at a sedate neighbourhood bedsitting room. One night, we went out to a restaurant with massive plate glass windows that served us what was the finest meal I could remember. The only part I remember now was the dessert, which was a chocolate terrine, surrounded by local tropical fruits.
4. Before we left Melbourne on Sunday morning, we decided to visit a church that had been recommended to us by friends in Toronto who had lived there. Again we climbed aboard a bus and rode for more than an hour before we wandered around a remote residential neighbourhood, heavy suitcases in hand, hoping we were close. We found the church, attended a good service and afterwards, when we were greeted, mentioned the names of our friends. These names were gold, magic words, incantations. We were whisked off to a country home, a ranch, where we were two of probably twenty or thirty guests who sat at one long burnished wood table, gleaming in the sunshine, fed lavishly on Australian beef, raised on the back forty. After the meal, we were packed up and driven to the airport, satisfied in so many ways.
5. The night we arrived in Italy, three years ago, I cried from distance from my babies and from jetlag that felt as if gravity had increased fourfold. Our heads drooped as we waited in our room in the convent we stayed at, on our iron twin beds, for the magic dinner hour of eight o'clock. Then we descended marble staircases into a wood-lined dining room, where we were served by nuns who spoke not a word of English. Our meal began with salad and homemade pasta tossed in the lightest of tomato sauces and glasses of sharp fresh red wine, made by the monks at the nearby monastery. Just when we thought we were full, we were urged to Mangia, Mangia, before the next course arrived: platters of lightly breaded and fried white fish -- enough for our entire far-flung family -- a bowl of buttered boiled yellow potatoes and another with green beans tossed with cheese. And then came dessert: a heavy delectable pound cake. And then a plate with hunks of cheese, including Reggiano, larger than my fist, and a bowl of mixed fruits, including blood orange. And then the nuns rolled us upstairs into our beds where we slept the sleep of good children before waking to open the shutters and look down at the olive groves and violets, Florence in the mid-distance, and the purple mountains beyond.
6. We knew Florence would be the main part of our Italian trip, but we wanted another destination too, for a couple of days. We decided to go to Parma for the cheese and Modena for the balsamico. Our first day was terrifying: we took the cluttered coastal route so I could see the Mediterranean (I got one glimpse) and then drove along gasp-inducing precipices through the Italian Alps on the wrong side of the road, with no map and unhelpful road signs. We found our bed and breakfast by luck, and then set out to meet Dave's friend in Modena, passing North African prostitutes every 100 metres along the side of the bucolic country road. It felt dark. The next day was light in every sense. It was a light spring day and we had no plans and so we drove from ruined castle to farmer's market to cheese shop, on brilliant green hillsides. We went to a spa built nearly a century ago after a farmer digging broke open a sulphuric blast of hot mineral water. We soaked and even fell asleep among Italians of every shape and size. And then we asked our innkeeper for the best place to eat -- a place locals would go. He suggested a place and called them to secure us a table. The owner was shy of us -- tourists never came to this 1960s style two-storey house, with the main floor now converted to a small restaurant. He circled the room but avoided us. His daughter served us and his wife cooked. We guessed -- wrongly -- at the menu and ended up with rare steak served over beds of arugula, and delicious pumpkin ravioli tossed in sage butter. At the end of the meal, we had to settle up with Papa at the bar, and he ventured a short conversation. Learning we were from Canada, he told us he had once been to Niagara Falls.
7. I didn't eat this one, but a few years ago I went alone to Washington to a Catholic arts conference, where speakers fought and every meal was Mexican food (I still have an aversion to wraps), and I met the weirdest people who lied and drank margaritas in the pale May sun, wearing large crosses around their necks and brushing off homeless people. At the last session of the conference, New Zealand performance artists used different materials to talk about redemption. Among them, and best of all, they draped an altar in this white stone cathedral with a white linen cloth, broke open fragrant, steaming hot bread and then uncorked a bottle of dark red wine and poured the wine lavishly over the bread. The guy with the largest cross was offended but I wept for the extravagance, the lavishness, the wastefulness of the communion.
8. Two years ago, I hosted a fundraiser/dinner party for 30 people and cooked singlehandedly. By the time the guests arrived, I was utterly done in and ready to collapse into a pile of mush, but I was also deeply satisfied. I have always loved cooking for large groups of people. I cooked for retreats through university and I love the challenge of feeding people really well on a shoestring budget. I haven't repeated my dinner party feat though.
9. A word should be said for every meal served at the end of a serious illness, for every glass of cool water drunk on a stifling hot day. Those meals satisfy like few other.
10. And last night. Oh, last night. Nan is in my writers group and among the many thoughtful pieces she has brought to us were a series of poems about the coming of age of a young Mennonite girl. The poems have now been published into a lovely collection, complete with recipes Nan developed and charming paintings by Mennonite artist Peter Etril Snyder. Last night, a local restaurant (Nick and Nat's Uptown 21) served a meal, based around the book and the seasons. I knew by the time the appetizer was served that this would make the list. The appetizer was simple slices of whole grain bread, served with a small cup of what turned out to be white wine vinegar and grapeseed oil. It sang on my tongue. Although not as much as the salad course. We had chosen to sit at the chef's table, a perch on the side of an open bar, overlooking the narrow galley kitchen. We watched as the frisee lettuce was tossed like wool and scattered carefully onto plates. We watched as the sous-chef sliced apples thinly with a mandoline, and cauliflower too, then tossed these in a maple-mustard vinaigrette. The frisee hid small piles of zesty pickled green beans, topped with the apples and cauliflower and scattered with tiny cubes of extra-old cheddar. My mouth died and went to heaven then. There was to be no talking and much moaning. The main course was a hot sour cream potato salad and sauerkraut, topped with individual smoked and braised pork shanks. Dessert was a pear sauce smeared on a plate with a puff of whipped cream and then a too-thin slice of dutch apple pie and a pile of strawberry-rhubarb custard crisp. Every course came with a paired wine. The coffee, I must report, was not good -- which made me realize I had not simply fallen into a trance, but I was discriminating and still, nearly every bite was a marvel. I told Nan she needed to write another book. And soon.