Now that I've made you suffer through all those memories of terrible food, it seems only fair that I ask you about the other end of the spectrum: the best food you've ever eaten. What does "best" mean? I suppose it's anything that you still think about, years later; the benchmark against which you compare restaurant dishes or your own creations. Or just the first bite of something that made you say "wow!" You decide.
I've told you that my mother was a rather conservative cook, but I should add that I was a picky eater as a child. You know--the kind that keeps everything on her plate separated, and eats all the potatoes before starting the chicken. I am grateful that my mother introduced me to such then-exotic items as asparagus and artichokes at a tender age, and for some reason I embraced those enthusiastically. But for many years I wouldn't go near onions, raw or cooked. My mother tried to sneak beets in now and then, and they made me gag (still do, alas, although I'm working on it because the golden ones and the stripey ones are so pretty).
Note that I say "my mother," because my father didn't cook. He did enjoy good food, and he favored meat and fish. After my parents split up, when he was between wives and living alone, his idea of cooking was to grill a piece of something on his handy indoor portable grill (which he rarely cleaned because all those fat drippings added flavor), and then take a knife and cut himself a nice slab of ice cream. Seriously.
My earliest food memories? Pistachio ice cream with my father (yes, he really liked ice cream). Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup with my mother (liked the soup, hated the slimy little bits of mushroom). I think in both cases I was about three.
The biggest change in my eating came the first time I went to France, when I was in college. I went with a friend, and we stuck to the $5 a day regime, apart from the indulgence of a rental car, so we ate a lot of inexpensive prix fixe meals in small restaurants in small towns. But, oh, it was a revelation! Scaredy-cat me was suddenly eating pate and cornichons and whole-grain mustard and obscure shellfish and gooey cheeses--and loving every minute of it. I never looked back.
But if I have to come up with only one memorable dish, I found it on a much later trip to Paris. I was traveling with my mother (who had never been abroad) and my then nine-year-old daughter. One ambled, the other ran, and I was stuck in the middle trying to keep an eye on everyone at once. Not a combination I recommend, but we all survived.
One evening we strolled the boulevards in search of dinner and came upon a mid-size restaurant that was only semi-crowded. I can't even remember the name of it, although I could tell you where it was. The dish that has etched itself on my memory wasn't even the main course, it was the appetizer: a salad of tender young greens, pate de fois gras, duck confit, and slices of green apple, all dressed in a mild vinaigrette. I stopped dead in my (eating) tracks when I tasted it. It had everything--it was sweet, sour, salty; creamy and crunchy; all perfectly balanced. Fifteen years later it's still my gold standard for the perfect dish, and I've never found anything to equal it (although I'm happy to keep trying!). I won't even attempt to recreate it--I'd rather treasure the memory.
What about you? What is the single most memorable eating experience of your life? It can be anything, anywhere--your grandmother's signature dish, your vacation splurge (which reminds me, there was that amazing hazelnut gelato from a street cart in Florence...). Share it with us!
PS. For the Awful Food contest, I'll give you until midnight tonight to come up with the best of your worst, and then I'll pick a winner. Which may not be easy!