Most people don’t sit around pondering what things taste like. You don’t hear kids mulling over the organoleptic properties of their PB & Js; plenty of earthy, nutty depth, salty finish, notes of caramel sweetness and overripe stone fruit, gluey mouth-feel.
I’m 18 and hungry, when I get hired at Picholine. At our pre-shift meeting, we swirl gewürztraminer on starched linens under the fantastically opulent chandelier; stick noses deep into glasses; discuss. “Rose petals,” a server says, his tie inhumanly perfect. “The first ones that fall, from a lush garden in high summer.”
“Allspice and peach.”
“Lychee and honeycomb.”
I swirl and sniff and swirl and sniff and focus on finding these aromatics. The bright white wine just tastes wine-y.
“Pumpkin seeds, roasting in a hot, hot oven.”
“A Bartlett pear, not quite ripe, but getting there.”
Every day at work, I go to the meetings. What does the gewürz pair beautifully with: Squab, sea bass with bottarga, bone marrow and salsify? Why is it minerally? Why the pucker, the acid, the crispness?
I discover morels and stinky Portuguese cheese and black garlic. I try kumquats and rillettes made with duck and foie gras. I start thinking: What does that taste like?What would that pair with? How would I write about the experience of fava bean tortellini, the green springtime of it, the lavish richness and the stunning garlicky freshness?
In college, Urs and I travel to Barcelona, and stay at a hostel where everything is in primary colors. Our bunkmates are loud, perpetually drunk German teenagers. We run into a studiously serious classmate and spend all night drinking cava, talking, and figuring out the universe.
In the morning, we walk up La Rambla to La Boqueria, and I exhale. I have found my happy place. Rainbows of fruits and veggies tower in prodigious mountains. Nuts, dried fruits, candies, ostrich eggs, mushrooms, sardines, fish heads, and wrinkly-rinded cheeses to make my heart stop, and start again, fast.
Breakfast is padrón peppers and garlic gambas from an ancient, missing-toothed man in a jaunty cap…and more cava.
Everywhere, there are long, fat legs of jamón, hanging to cure and waft and tempt. We buy some paper-thin slices and eat them for dessert, the Mediterranean sun fierce on our shoulders. The sweet, nutty, salty, briny meat is nearly purple, ribboned generously with fat. The ham melts on our tongues, sings. The stuff is revelatory, with layers and layers of happy depth. We giggle. The next day, we buy more.
After college, Ursula moves to London, and New York, and Berkeley. I move to LA, and Philadelphia, and New York.
I work in food, following its delicious siren call, its mystery, its power. I nurse cheese while it ripens into dirty goodness; a mean line cook sears my forearm with his sizzle plate; I wait tables enough to have scary server dreams, where there’s a whole section in a secret dining room that I can’t find. I wake up panicked, rooting through my kitchen drawers for a wine key. I write descriptions for pancake boxes: “Ditch the diner for the fluffy flapjacks of your wildest dreams!”
Last week, Ursula traveled to Reykjavík and the south of France and Barcelona, then stopped in New York. We grilled skewers of veggies and yogurt-marinated chicken thighs in her friend’s lovely Prospect Park backyard. Fireflies and mosquitoes dotted the sky.
“I brought you something.”
It’s a truly good friend who smuggles jamón ibérico in her suitcase. It’s in a shiny package that tears open easily, perfuming the air with dense, meaty beauty. It was expensive, and the barbecue guests say, “save it!” but I can think of no better time to lay the rich ham-slices on my tongue than outside in Brooklyn, the smoke of the grill waning, the sky blue-black, surrounded by friends and gin and promise. We pass around the jamón, which is thicker than our Boqueria find but just as serious in its complexity, just as wild and brawny and redolent with sweetness.
I understand, of course, that this is the language — that there is nothing in the thesaurus for this particular paradise, no recipe for illegal Spanish umami genius and people you love and summertime. This is the point, the raison d’être, the sun gone, the last slice of cured ham, the last rosemary-scented gin in our glasses…the air sweet, the night still young.