Stealthily, the plate is placed in front of me and just as swiftly, I am elsewhere. The warmth emanating from the just-charred pita recalls desert heat, the pressing of flesh at a crowded table, the heartiness of genuine laughter. Dill and parsley and garlic and tomato waft their telltale scents noseward and they mix with an imagined sea spray that brings me beachside even though I am decidedly inland. The din of mountainfolk is crowded out in my imagination by the passionate discourse typical of any Israeli gathering. Such is the power of Hovey & Harrison’s shakshuka, a delicacy to rival any that I have had in Tel Aviv.
Removed from their homes, but safely nestled in their ceramic shells, the snails indulge in their buttery, garlicky bath. Listening closely, I can hear them chatting with each other in between puffs of Gauloises, snarky little French jibes in their rapid patter. It almost makes me want to let them remain in their segmented circle. Almost. But their fate is sealed by their rubbery, rich deliciousness. I restrain from inhaling them, lest I offend the maître d’ who is merely an apparition as I am not in Lyon, but people watching on Meadow Drive. The escargots at La Tour sont toujours magnifique.
I duck in from the cold, shedding snow off my shoulders. Aerosolized globules of pork fat fill the air in their own porcine blizzard, mingle with the tang of chile oil and the herbaceous essence of basil, and activate my salivary glands. Clad in my bibs, with a permagrin borne from hours of pow skiing, I arm myself with chopsticks and place my face directly over the bowl. The tantalizing steam warms my face and my heart. Slurping the noodles with gusto, I chow down. The snow could not possibly have rivaled the insane depths of Hokkaido, but Wednesday afternoons at Craftsman digging into a huge helping of ramen bring me close enough.
Even as I walk across the bridge, I can feel the reverberations of the party vibe. A stiff onshore breeze blows in the heart of the mountains, a geographical anachronism making this mountain town into an island paradise. I walk closer and my staid black shirt becomes a colorful print, my hair grows a little longer, my stubble fills in. The sleek space is no surfside shack, but its minders exude equatorial hospitality. Flaming ribbons of rum pour into a complex mélange of fruit and spice, the lily gilded by a cute turquoise umbrella. The Scotts at Root & Flower are the tropical barmen of my dreams.
My appetite has been my guide around this spinning blue orb, a constant search for that next great dish, that perfect taste, that proverbially and literally intoxicating cocktail. From a deep warren of Xi’an eating a bull’s penis with some random dudes to some of the world’s haute gastronomical temples, I could die now without having another bite. Happily settled into my peaceful existence in this fantastical Valley, I do not possess months to wander aimlessly as my tongue and belly dictate. But the benefit of living in a cosmopolitan place filled with the culinary gifted is that I can raise my fork a mere mile from my home and immediately reach my destination.
The cats that have offered me these transportive experiences do so in environments with stresses that would turn coal to diamond. Even prior to the pandemic, they plied their crafts with little thanks and quite a bit of acrimony from patrons who have utterly no concept of the talent, dedication, and effort that it takes to turn out even one mediocre dish, let alone thousands of transcendent ones. They do not need my thanks, but I offer them my sincerest gratitude. I look forward to circling the globe with them once or a million times more.