Edible Memories Day 13: Food and Pleasure

When I was twenty-three, with a broken heart and a mask of bravado disguising a fragile self, I moved to New York. Manhattan. The City. The gauntlet that is one's early 20s had left me feeling battered. Intent on starting anew, I hitched my wagon to a vaguely defined position at a marketing firm and sublet the living room of a 5th floor walk-up apartment two acquaintances inhabited. Looking back, I realize I was running as fast as I could towards what I hoped would be a brighter horizon.

Life as I lived it that year was vastly different from anything I'd ever expected or experienced. In addition to New York's quick pace and insistence on independence, I found that thin was in, and meals became lonely tributes to the bevy of tasteless, fat-free fare that studded the inner aisles of my neighborhood Gristedes. I lost sight of the comfort and succor eating well provides. In many ways, this was a snub to my family and history; at its most basic, and most damaging, it was a repudiation of self.

You see, having grown up in southwest Louisiana, I knew that food doesn’t get much better than a steaming bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo, fresh Gulf shrimp or a hot link of boudin. My sister and I used to crab off the wharf in our backyard and lay traps for red swamp crawfish alongside our house where a small gully retained enough rainwater to encourage them to move in. Those ingredients, which seemed as common as water and as critical as mother's milk, spoiled me. And yet for a while, I turned my back on them all.

One evening, when my parents were in town visiting me, we went to Chanterelle, the venerable, now-shuttered, Tribeca restaurant. The Night of the Seafood Sausage, as I’ve since taken to calling that meal, provided me one of the culinary highlights of my life despite the fact that I remember only one dish: the Grilled Seafood Sausage in Beurre Blanc.

That evening, a beautiful night that did justice to Chanterelle’s towering windows, I paid no heed to presumed calorie counts, welcomed the bread basket with open arms and banished any consideration of just how much butter might be in the sauces. I simply had to have that sausage and ordered it without hesitation. 

Et voilà. One perfectly arced link: stuffed with generous chunks of lobster, shrimp, scallops and white fish to the point at which the casing began to shrug with exertion; grilled to a golden hue and slick with heat and moisture; nestled in a languid pool of beurre blanc so ethereal it must have defied laws of physics.

I smiled and gingerly picked up my fork and knife. The blade found the slightest resistance in the hot collagen’s taut skin but soon sliced cleanly through. Eyes wide, absorbing the delicacy in front of me, I speared a perfect round with my fork, pulled it gently through the pale yellow sauce and placed the bite on my tongue.

I was rendered speechless. Reflexively, my eyes shut, my chewing slowed, my taste buds thrilled with the assault of flavors from which they’d been largely deprived. My first conscious thought might have been, “I will absolutely hate to share even the smallest morsel of this with my parents.” Yet when you taste something so truly remarkable, share it you must if only so that others will believe your proclamations of greatness.

Exceptional seafood is often best when left to shine on its own: boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce; steamed crabs served alongside nothing but a bib, shell crackers and maybe a lemon; oysters on the half shell with a mild mignonette waiting in the wings. And so in some ways, ordering that sausage went against my better judgment: what if the meat was overcooked? what if the flavors of each sea creature were muddled, the whole made less than its parts?

For reasons then mystical but understood to me now, I took a leap by ordering that link. The indulgence of that sausage wasn’t simply that it was stuffed with incredible seafood or that it was literally full of calories, fat and cholesterol. I don’t remember it so clearly more than a decade later just because it was perfectly prepared.

No, the taste of that dish lingers on my lips because it was a moment of freedom in which I learned, relearned, much. I have since come to believe that enjoying food is as much about what you’re eating as it is when, how, and with whom; that if you're open to experience, life is ever so much richer; and that the joie de vivre inherent in many Louisiana families isn't something to let go of.          

I have never regretted the three years I lived in New York. There, because in Manhattan you either sink or swim, I started to become my truest self. As I winnowed through the sorts of jobs, friends, men and identities I didn't want, I gained a confidence I'd long sought. That meal at Chanterelle demonstrated to me, retrospectively of course, that even the smallest steps can shift life's tectonic plates in grand ways.