Originally published on Put A Egg On It.
The term “salad days” is a little abstruse, but I have a feeling these are mine. It’s my first summer living on my own – my first time doing all of the things that the incubator-esque housing system at my college guards against (i.e. paying for food and rent). And it has been marked by a distinct lack of green, both vegetal and fiscal. In the weeks leading up to my aunt’s wedding in Chicago, I look forward to it as my opportunity to go unapologetically all-out – to glory in the family maxim that states that ordinary eating outside one’s native zip code is impossible.
For us, vacation eats are characterized by two forms of decadence: the Uber-fancy, and what my mom calls the “sick.” The former means maître d’s that probably object to whatever I chose to wear during the day; minuscule dishes atop gargantuan plates; waitresses who know the name of the local bakery our bread is sourced from, and would be happy to provide a brief history of its operations up to this point in time. The latter means foods so base, so gratuitous, so nutritionally bankrupt, that the thought of it being consumed on an ordinary day is – to my parents at least – laughable.
This isn’t a family vacation in the strict sense, but our preoccupation with what we will be eating – and the attendant dichotomy – holds true. Our first night is marked by a foray into the ultra-Uber-fancy, in the form of a seven p.m. reservation at Goosefoot: nine course tasting menu, multiple waiters to a table, unwilling to accommodate diets more restrictive than pescetarian. It’s me, my mom, my aunt Lisa, and her fiancée Heather. They’ve been together two years longer than there are courses on this menu; they’ve waited a couple’s eternity for the state of Illinois to legalize gay marriage, and the wedding planning process has been fraught. (Rats in the backyard. Who knew?) This dinner, booked months in advance, is their reward to themselves for having made it to “I do.”
The meal kicks off with a mushroom soup shot that is, by far, the creamiest, most flavorful mushroom soup I’ve ever had – an opinion very vocally corroborated by everyone at the table. It’s no prizewinner, aesthetically speaking, but many of the dishes that follow are as striking to look as they are to taste. A silky egg custard comes in an egg-shaped vessel, set in a mini terrarium. One dessert, a multi-berry macaron, is served beneath a transparent dome. Our waitresses lift the domes, and direct us to insert our noses and sniff before eating.
The food is, surprisingly, casually delicious: simple flavors, brought out to the utmost by careful preparation. Sometimes the showy packaging is distracting, but more often, it quietly encourages the diner to eat in a way that allows the main component of the dish to shine. For example, a deconstructed venison course in which sauce appears in the form of artful dots – to be applied to the meat or not, to be combined with each other or not, as one sees fit.
By the end of the night, I have a hard time believing that anything else I eat in Chicago will measure up Goosefoot’s informed Uber-fanciness. But day two witnesses a superb counter attack from the “sick:” takeout from a local favorite called Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
I’m not a fried chicken person – one too many bad experiences with school hot lunch has left me skeptical about anything cloaked by a layer of panko that claims to be meat. But neither is my aunt, and she insists that this place is special. Our eight-piece order includes a mix of drumsticks, breasts, and thighs, along with corn muffins and the eponymous honey butter. For sides we’ve chosen jalapeno mac and cheese, grits, sweet potatoes, collard greens with pork, and a conspicuous odd man out: kale and yogurt salad.
This is the fancy masquerading as the sick. Cardboard boxes and copious grease hide a fierce commitment to serving only antibiotic-free, humanely raised chicken, butchering them on-site, and GMO and trans-fat-free oil. The macaroni is bright orange, but every ingredient in it is high caliber and locally sourced. The kale in the kale salad is not the perfunctory wilted greens that peep out of fastfood to-go containers the world over, but bright, bouncy leaves that would be at home in any Brooklyn brunch spot. I heap portions of everything onto my plate, creating a spectacular array of green and orange and beige, which I destroy and rebuild several times before admitting defeat. For me, the standouts are the macaroni and the chicken. The former is distinguished by a startlingly high ratio of cheese to mac – a profusion of thick, tangy Wisconsin cheddar that puts Kraft’s identically colored cheese product to shame. The chicken is lightly fried, and falls apart as if one of its great grandparents were a brisket. My mom and aunt take turns halving the last piece, until all that remains is a bite’s worth of chicken that I’m eventually cajoled into eating.
Afterwards, Lisa asks me what I liked better, this or Goosefoot. I find myself incapable of answering – torn between opposite forms of gluttony, between white tablecloths and piles of paper napkins, between nibbling my way through my own dainty portion and scrambling to get as much as I can, between ingeniousness and straightforward deliciousness, between forms of gastronomic bacchanalias that, in opposite ways, satisfy the vacationer’s intuition that geographic displacement sanctions excess.
And the unpleasant fullness I feel, after two days of total surrender to this intuition, causes me, prone on my inflatable mattress, to enter into another line of indecision, to question whether this intuition is justified, or even enjoyable.
There is no denying that there are costs to traveling the way I was brought up to travel. Certainly, during this trip and others, concerns about what I’ll be eating grow to occupy a some-would-say inordinate portion of my brain; certainly it’d be nice to get back to my hotel room at the end of a day and not feel compelled to sleep on my stomach; certainly, a monomaniacal focus on alimentary matters detracts from events that take place outside restaurants or somebody’s kitchen. I remember, several years earlier, bloatedly wandering the halls of the Vatican and wondering where we would end up for lunch.
I think about this more over the next few days, as the wedding approaches, the rest of my family arrives, and preparatory activities – moving tables, arranging photographs – give way to touristy ones. I am aware of how, walking down Michigan Avenue, my thought stray automatically to the tin of Garrett’s popcorn (a Chicago specialty known for its signature, absurdly complementary combination of CheeseCorn and CaramelCrisp®) picked up first thing from the Magnificent Mile outlet. And the morning of the wedding, I am forced to acknowledge that my thoughts lie mostly in the kitchen, specifically in a container I know to contain a vanilla buttercream cake whose praises have been sung to me for days.
Then I discover I am not completely incapable of transcending my mania. During the wedding itself, a ceremony that leaves me weeping, my brain stays put. I am not thinking about the cake, or the edible party favors (more Garrett’s), or the next day’s brunch.
It’s a moment of sweet relief that I’m unsure how to interpret. On the one hand, the fact that it takes an event as momentous as a wedding to muffle my fixation indicates that I do indeed have a problem. On the other hand (one holding an ice cream cone or an empanada), there’s an argument to be made that the ability of select events to do so deepens my appreciation of them.
Perhaps one day I’ll have a serious sit down with myself, and decide whether living meal to meal, while traveling, is something I want to actively fight. But this summer, a time of office party scrounging and dinners of soup and crackers, I am content to ere on the side of cutting myself some slack – to soak up the sick and the Uber-fancy and the sick-Uber-fancy, and be grateful for having been born into a family capable of waddling seamlessly between both.
The last thing I eat in Chicago is a deep-dish pepperoni pizza, heated up in the microwave of O’Hare’s very own UNO. As I pop open the container, the woman sitting next to me changes seats. Coincidence or genuine repulsion? Who knows? Who cares? Carefully, ceremoniously, my mom and I divide the slices, and take our first bites. It’s not the paragon of mass-produced goodness I had envisioned while going through the arduous motions of airport security, but something about the ultra red sauce (more sugar than tomato) and the basically raw dough makes me long for the days when I wasn’t expected to want my pizza topped with organic vegetables and chichi balsamic. This is the lowest form of the sick, but – in an airport terminal, going on five hours of non-too sound sleep – it is so satisfying.