I had the second best meal of my life yesterday.
It was the highly unexpected end to an arduous quest for Melissa (my wife) and I, as we attempted to go on our first date in eighteen months and also belatedly celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary, which had been rudely curtailed by a household stomach flu; which led to us trading our plans for Glorious Piles of Small Plates At Fancy Restaurants for Cleaning Up Vomit and Stress Eating Mozzarella Sticks At 8 PM at Night.
Two weeks later, we set out again, sponsored this time by vacation and the generosity of an island friend (thank you Jenny!) who graciously agreed to pick up our children, feed them, and put them to bed so that we could go out and adult together.
We went into the city in the early afternoon (Portland, Maine. Population, 75,000, which boasts both the highest level of hipster-pretension and amazing small restaurants per capita in the country), had a couple drinks, and wandered around blissfully until suddenly discovering that the restaurant we had based our dinner plans around was closed unexpectedly. This necessitated some frantic googling, a very quick text exchange with my incredibly knowledgeable foodie sister-in-law (thank you Patsy!), and a lot of rapid COVID risk evaluation of our short list of alternate candidates. This process ended us up at Little Giant, a small bistro in the West End of Portland, a good mile’s walk from where we were, and one of the few places in town that unapologetically requires vaccines for its diners.
[Quick review: Go to this restaurant before they become famous. They have a short menu of small plates and main courses that changes frequently. Their food is sourced seasonally and locally, which they use to great effect, and if you’ve ever wondered “Why fine dining?”, you’ll see why here, where their careful attention turns good ingredients into glorious masterpieces. The highlights: buratta with pickled watermelon rind, scallop ceviche in chive oil, hangar steak with bok choy, and crab with black rice and horseradish. Their waitstaff clearly cares about their food and is also sneaky good at pairing wine from their well-curated list with whatever amazing food they’re bringing to you next. One good step down in $ from the most famous places in town, with small plates at $8-$17 and main courses at $25-$30.]
My wife and I are foodies and have a running list of of the best meals we’ve ever had since we’ve been married [Our top five, in ascending order: dinner at the Samoset in Rockport during our honeymoon, our first meal at Keon’s Bistro in Haverhill, a five course wine dinner at Michael and Gretchen Arntz’s house with great company, our meal at Little Giants, and at the very top, the chef’s tasting menu at Evo in Portland five years ago, where they brought us piles of delicious things until we had to get the boat home.] Making this list is not just about the food, although good food (and drink) is essential. It’s also about the moment, about the company, the conversation, the weather even. I’ve had great meals on otherwise forgettable nights that have already faded from memory. I’ve had meals that were less-than-perfect that will stay with me forever because of the moment when they happened. A Best Meal is an ineffable alchemy; and when all those ingredients come together, the whole experience will feed your soul for months.
We sat and we drank and we ate. I successfully fought off the urge to say grace at every new course and unsuccessfully tried to stop making slightly-embarrassing guttural exclamations of delight with each new dish. We talked about our last year, about our dreams for our future and our family, about our hopes for our new house and the shapes of the next season of our lives, which we are are so close to entering into. We counted moments in bites rather than seconds and slipped gently out of the stream of time; only to return, with the check, nearly three hours later, wondering where all the time had passed.
We tipped our way back to our car, the rain falling lightly on us, feeling like we had compressed a week’s worth of rest into one glorious evening. As we headed back exhausted, on the last ferry, ready to thank our sitter and fall into bed; I reflected that this, I’m pretty sure, is what we’re supposed to mean when we say Holy: not the fussy dustiness of dead words and stained glass windows, not the defensively mathematical precision of doctrine or morals, not the intimidating contemptuous grandeur of a Being that has somehow deigned to put up with us because it didn’t have any better choices; but rather the promiscuously overflowing exuberance that makes souls out of dust, grows hope out of cold concrete, and which turns even the plainest encounter into communion with the love that birthed the cosmos.
We tend to think of the life of the Spirit as a reward for assiduous practice, or as something done on our behalf by religious professionals, or that thing that’s supposed to happen when we gather with others at long-proscribed times and places. However, it is in fact a gift; one that comes often unasked-for and unexpected, and turns words and silence into wisdom; turns food into sacrament, and turns time into eternity. I’ve encountered those moments more than once in explicitly spiritual settings; but often I’ve found that the most memorable ones tend to ambush me when I’m hardly looking for them.
Frederick Buechner says
Some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. waking up to the first snow. being in bed with somebody you love… whether you thank God for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. if you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.
These moments are invitations:
Life is far more wild than you dream.
Do not spend all your time splashing in the shallows.
Swim to the Deep, whose waves lap up on your shore, and dive into the arms of Love instead.