By Hannah Myrick · 2 years ago
America is obsessed with fast food culture.
With food that can be eaten on the go, in the car, on the street.
We tend to be focused on measures of extremity, on portion sizes, record time, mega-flavors, extravagance. A taco shell made from Doritos or milkshakes that have a slice of cake on top. (Although, to be honest, these are two things I’d be 100% willing to try if placed right in front of me).
Disclaimer: I’m a foodie, an eater, a lover of all calories and flavors. So, to me, food marks an overwhelmingly important part of my life. It’s what I shape my days, my travels, and my life around, because to me food acts a slice of storytelling and the way that we consume our food tells us so much of the world we exist in. So, this story is me making the case that we have a lot to learn from what we eat.
For me, the most joyous food occasions are the long meals—the ones that are at least an hour, but ideally three.
I went to New York to visit a friend this spring and we stumbled upon Katz’s, the 24-hour Jewish deli that boasts the best pastrami sandwiches in the state (deservedly so). We spent a lot of our time there, not only because we had never experienced the glory of their fries, pickles, and latkes, but because being there was a process of fully embracing the city we were in.
The walls were plastered with photos of Meg Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Matthew Broderick, and other celebrities who had all experienced the utter joy that we had. It was filled with tourists from all over the world, but also locals who are in the shop just to eat salt, oil, rye, and pastrami filled food.
Behind the counter stood men from their early twenties to late sixties, making the sandwiches, helping you ship a log of salami across the world, telling you why you want sour pickles and not half sour pickles, and all in all creating this family atmosphere.
We stayed for more than an hour because we were surrounded by history, family, friends, and employees who were passionate about the way that their Pastrami sandwich has been bringing the whole world of New York together since 1888.
We came back because we somehow felt like locals in a place full of tourists.
What seems to make these meals so defining—whether they’re in your home, in your city or across the world—is they allow you to live entirely in the moment as you’re focused on the only thing that isn’t you: your food. You can savor the flavors that someone created, imagining your meal as not just calories, but as a piece of artwork, craft, and stories all compiled.
Last year, my friends and I hosted a “friendsgiving” dinner with 30 of our friends. It meant one of my roommates could finally try out her mom’s flan recipe and we could finally try our hand at making our own turkeys (the birds we named Peter and Patricia could not have turned out better). We were making new traditions for ourselves and our friends and that night our U-district house felt so much like a home.
We jammed out to the Temptations and Simon and Garfunkel and pigged out on stuffing, brussel sprouts lathered in cheese, homemade dinner rolls with Kahlua pork, and way too much apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie.
What made this night so magical was the quality time we got to spend together, reflected in the amount of time we put into our food. We had high expectations, knowing our concoctions would dazzle our friends. The joy that surfaced from that night was not just the food, but quality time with friends. We were all seated at one long table that spilled onto the couch, going late into the night with stories of untold escapades and memories. Over beers and third helpings we became a makeshift family.
That night, a tradition of food-based love was born.
For me, long meals have become a kind of meditation practice, a process of being mindful of your place in the world, in terms of your relationships and what you’re passionate about, by being aware of the food in front of you and the time that went into it.
I think we tend to miss the enjoyment of food as food. Instead of enjoying the taste of each bite, we tend to eat quickly and mindlessly. A meal is crafted solely for the purpose of you to consume it, made up literally of the world around you, and we often don’t recognize the artistry that lies in that creation.
To be honest, I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, often eating my lunch at work or dinner with my phone in hand. That said, there’s an importance in savoring the time that someone has dedicated to craft what you consume, and when you eat for an extended period of time you’re forced to confront this.
Traveling can bring this idea of food appreciation out in its purest form, because you’re in a new environment and the quickest way you can throw yourself into that new culture is to engage with the cafés, restaurants, and markets around you. You are eating the flavor of a nation, small town, or single person’s identity and can learn about something new in that process.
A trip I took to Paris last summer amplified this concept by presenting the best meal of my life: a slice of Tarte Tatin at a restaurant called Les Philosophes.
Tarte Tatin is a tart often filled with apples that are caramelized in butter and sugar before it’s baked. At Les Philosophes, the tarte can take up to four hours to prepare, as the apples are sat marinating in their own juices. It should be noted that, when that’s what I ordered, I had to wait two hours for my food.
Waiting has never felt so good.
It meant people-watching, reading, eavesdropping on people’s conversations in French, and watching Italians act out their conversations at the table next to me. And when the tarte finally arrived, it was one of the most beautiful bites I have ever tasted.
Its beauty lay in its simplicity, and the fact that I had to close my eyes when I had that first bite to experience nothing but that taste, a melt-in-your-mouth kind of sweetness. The waiters expected you to wait for this meal, never in a rush themselves, and never expecting you to be. You are expected to spend time valuing the treasure that is your food and the artistry that goes into it.
A “Bonne Journee madame” (have a great day madame) said by the waiter, accompanied by an air blown kiss as I left my table was the seal on a meal that will forever mark a time of complete satisfaction.
Long meals allow you to live in the moment. You’re forced to confront the meal before you, what surrounds you, the people, the stories, and the ambiance, no matter if it’s in the middle of a park, in an alley in France or at your U-district make-shift dinner table in a home that has never felt more full. When we eat, we savor more than simply the flavors that we’re consuming, but the flavors that surround us.
I think we often associate these long meals with fancy dining but that does not have to be the case. These meals can be picnics with a box of pizza or sitting at a sandwich spot for two hours; these meals can be had with families and friends or crafted by your own hands. They can be anywhere, at any time, sometimes when you least expect them, and that’s what makes them so magical.
So, the final moral: we should all be eating more. Not necessarily bigger quantities, but with bigger intention, with a greater effort to make it a mindful act and savor what you create and consume. It may seem unnecessary and oddly difficult to be that mindful, but the more attentively we consume our food, the more food becomes a part of who we are and we recognize how much history, character, and storytelling goes into what we are eating.
I petition for longer lunch breaks and longer dinners, with no more phones but more books on the dinner table. We need less scarfing and more chewing. When you travel, be it across the world or to the next town over, think about the story that the food is telling you.
We should be eating with greater acknowledgment for the fact that we are the stories that we consume.
Edited by Jack Russillo