One day, my crazy college roommate ordered a well-done burger at a Greek diner. To be more specific: "one day" was 12 years ago, my crazy college roommate was probably not much crazier than yours, a well-done burger was the object of her affection and the Greek diner was the subject of my research.
Teenaged and fractious, I probed that place where the suburbs meet the sublime, hiding beneath dark hair and the camera's dark cloth. The extraordinary nature of ordinary life was unveiled, for me, in roadside diners; places where the patrons were more vanilla than the milkshakes, and where white bread was not just an option for toast. Then I discovered the magic and mystery of 24-hour Greek diners - places with such names as Athenian, Parthenon and Dimitri's. All had encyclopaedic menus offering mastodonic portions of just about anything that could be dreamt up, if dreams could be manufactured in bulk and laminated like stock images: pastrami sandwiches, all day breakfasts, lo mein, lasagne and lemon meringue pie.
It is estimated that there are more than 1,000 Greek diners and coffee shops in the New York metropolitan area, and I estimate that I've been in half of them. At some point along the way - trial and error, perhaps - I adopted the arbitrary doctrine that the only things truly worth eating in these places were from the Greek section of the menu: spanakopita, stuffed grape leaves, utterly forgettable gyros. I loved them all and made unsolicited recommendations to everyone unlucky enough to accompany me on these expeditions. This included my crazy roommate, who reacted by throwing the top part of her bun in my face and telling me to shut up and let her enjoy her food. And, bless her chided palate, I deserved it.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and I am sitting at the bar of a four-star restaurant where I like to order an off-the-menu patty melt. If you've never had a patty melt, which is like a saucy, sultry cousin to the cheeseburger, then you should do something about that, because they're truly among the best things on earth. One must provide one's own plastic cheese for these sandwiches because the professedly offensive material cannot be found in the restaurant's walk-in. I pass my paper bag of contraband to the server with the smug camaraderie of a secret handshake.
The next day, I wax lyrical about the patty melt to a friend. "That sounds great," she says. "Too bad I'm afraid to have a burger with you." Surprised, I ask her what she means by that. "Well, I like them well done. And I know you judge that sort of thing."
An editor once told me she despised the word "nourishment", and that I should find a better word to use instead. But I have never been able to think of one. The relationship between food and nourishment is one all its own. "Sustenance" is too serious. "Aliments" too austere. "Nutrition" too neutral. What I am talking about is a way of eating for which there are no rules and no recipes, and most of all, where there is no room for judgement.
I have to admit that my friend's assessment was partly right: I do hate a well-done burger. But I've trained the brat in me to recognise where my appetites end and where those of others begin, and something I don't want to be is lousy company. For me to hold others hostage to my tastes would be worse than hypocritical: it would be tyrannical.
What's more, it would be coming from someone who writes odes to American cheese to the derision of her peers. I'm still the girl who got her hand slapped by a host for salting food that - apparently! - did not require it. And I'll never forget ordering the chilli cheese burrito at Taco Bell in high school, to the unending amusement of my friends. "You got what?" they laughed. "Nobody actually orders that!" There are so many opportunities in life to feel like a total loser that I'm determined not to feel that way while I eat. And I really don't think anyone else should have to tolerate it, either.
For the past two weeks, I have been nursing my way through the tenderness of a special kind of heart-break. My coping mechanisms include: do what I want, when I want, with whom I want, if anything at all, just to get by. The house is filled with flowers and notes from friends. Many of them are gentle platitudes: "you'll see him again someday" and "he's in a better place now". The circumstances of our dog's death remain unclear, and what I find myself craving most is candour. I don't leave it up to a stranger to sugar-coat the truth for me, or to protect me from something that's my responsibility and my right to know. My dog deserved better than that; we all deserve better than that.
My friend's grandmother, who is 101 years old and bedridden, lives on porridge, except for when her granddaughter visits once a year. They have a secret arrangement that must wait until the nurse has left the room. That's when my friend removes the brown paper bag from her handbag, slips out the croissant and crumbles it into flakes, which she slowly feeds to her grandmother. Doing this means breaking every rule in the book, but I am in love with the image, because it allows for the idea that there are forms of nourishment available to us that we may not even understand.
Someone recently described dying of old age to me as "an elegant process, although not a pretty one". It's humbling to consider the mystery of the body's wisdom. The body often knows what it's doing before the mind has time to catch up.
Sometimes the body knows what it wants before we know how to provide it. And sometimes we just have to let it lead the way.