Question for Foodies: What’s the Meal that Changed Your Life?
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?
That’s really an open-ended question, isn’t it?
Most of us would probably answer an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant with our family or friends, perhaps on a special occasion. That seems to be the most logical answer.
But ask Terry Anderson about his most memorable meal. For those who don’t remember that name, Anderson was held captive for nearly six years in Lebanon by Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group. While held prisoner inside a dark room most of the time, he was fed a horrible diet. Anderson lost a third of his body weight while being a hostage.
When Anderson was finally set free, he was flown to a U.S.A.F. base in Germany, while in transit back to the United States. At the time he landed, Anderson had not enjoyed what we would call a “normal meal” in six years.
Anderson was led into a cafeteria. A chef was summoned to cook whatever Anderson wanted. Imagine what that instant must have been like for him. Think of being denied what you enjoy most. What would you demand in that situation? What would you hungry for the most? Can anyone even contemplate making such a decision, unless you’ve lived through that kind of hell for six long years?
Even so — what do you think Anderson ordered? Go ahead, take a wild guess.
I’ll return to this question (and answer) at the end of today’s article.
You’re looking at a photo of Glenn Cademartori (above).
He’s an executive with Caesars Entertainment, in charge of marketing and promotion for several casino properties in Nevada, California, and Arizona.
I first met Glenn back around 2007, when he was running the Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT). In the seven or so years since, we’ve dined together in San Jose (Costa Rica), Montevideo (Uruguay), New York City — and many occasions in both Las Vegas and Reno-Lake Tahoe. Whenever one of us is in town, we always try to make time to catch up and talk about food and life. READ MORE HERE
The most recent excuse for our reunion was my visit to Reno and week-long stay at the Peppermill Casino, where we’re filming the latest edition of “Poker Night in America.” Glenn stopped by because we were both eager to try the new steakhouse here, called Bimini.
Everything about Bimini was spectacular. But as is often the occasion with my guests, the conversation somehow managed to trump the food — and that’s really saying something because the meal was truly outstanding.
During the course of our two-hour conversation, Glenn talked about growing up in Hoboken, NJ — which is probably most famous for being the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. Glenn talked about two bakeries he used to visit as a kid. One was called “Marie’s.” The other was “Antique.”
Glenn said he used to stop by at least one of the bakeries on his way home from school each day. At that time, a loaf of bread cost about 50-cents. Over time, Glenn came to realize the bread from one bakery was significantly better quality than the other. He spoke of the unique texture of the bread which was baked at “Marie’s.” He described it as crunchy on the outside, and soft on the inside. The loaves also had a smooth top, and a shiny surface, as though it had been brushed with butter before it was placed in the over. The bread always came out hot and fresh. You could even smell and taste the yeast, he remembered.
Then, Glenn described the bread from “Antique.” The trouble was, it wasn’t nearly as good. The bread seemed to be every bit as fresh and was prepared with essentially the same ingredients. But small details like the texture and taste of “Marie’s’ bread made it superior.
I tell this story because — at least for Glenn — it became his first moment of self-awareness that there was such a thing as average food (which is common), versus great food (which is rare),
In a sense, sampling different breads from those two bakeries became a defining moment. Thereafter, he went on to judge all the breads he ate with that first loaf from “Marie’s.” Obviously, most bakeries and restaurants ended up falling far short of the gold standard that was set some three decades ago.
In a sense, a simple loaf of bread picked up on the way home from school that cost 50-cents was a life-changing experience.
That story led to me being asked about what made me into a “foodie” (others would say a snob).
I wish my story was as poignant as Glenn’s. But alas, it’s not.
I believe it was my 12th birthday, but it could have been my 13th. I saw this intriguing restaurant on a street corner called “Pelican’s Wharf.” That seemed like a pretty cool place. After all, who doesn’t like pelicans?
As it turned out, Pelican’s Wharf was a seafood restaurant.
My birthday was coming up and my mother asked where I’d like to go to dinner. That was always a family tradition. We’d go to a nice restaurant somewhere in town and enjoy living the high life, at least for a night.
So, I told her I wanted to go to Pelican’s Wharf, having no idea what to expect.
February 6th was my big night. My mother invited some other members of the family and we all went out to Pelicans Wharf. I didn’t know what to order, but ended up getting a swordfish entree because that sounded kinda’ exciting.
I must have been really lucky that night, picking the swordfish. When the order arrived, it was the best thing I’d ever smelled. When I managed to take a bite, it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. I can still remember a perfectly sauteed white filet of fish, basted in a lemon butter sauce, topped with a cayenne seasoning. And it was served on a sizzling steel plate. The only word to this day I can think of to describe the experience would be – intoxicating.
That night’s meal became a life changing experience for me. In the years leading up to that moment, I’d surely enjoyed good food and great meals. My mother and grandmother were both excellent cooks. But nothing before it had quite had ever tasted the way the swordfish was prepared on that special night. Perhaps it was just an emerging culinary maturity, but I had become aware there were things out there which quite simply had to be tasted and experienced.
As I said, our fondest memories and innermost desires are entirely subjective.
Recall the earlier question I posed about Terry Anderson, the former hostage.
What do you think Anderson ordered as his very first meal, after being confined in a cell in Lebanon for nearly six years? Keep in mind, he could order anything he wanted.
Anderson walked up to the chef. Then, he ordered a dozen scrambled eggs.
That’s right – 12 scrambled eggs.
What a seemingly bizarre request to make after all that period of denial.
Later, Anderson explained the one thing he was never afforded while held prisoner in Lebanon was eggs, especially cooked the way Americans like them. While in captivity, Anderson experienced the same dreams just about anyone else would go through — fantasizing about the things he missed the most.
As it turned out, what Anderson missed the most wasn’t the fancy restaurants, or things like steak and lobster. Rather, it was the most simple food staple — eggs.
Anderson not only devoured the full dozen that was served on his plate. According to an interview he gave some time later, Anderson consumed six more after that — 18 scrambled eggs in all, in an experience he would describe as he best meal of his life.
I suppose the lesson in this for all of us is — reiterated in very different ways by Glenn Cademartori and Terry Anderson — that the very simplest things can truly be the most meaningful and memorable. In Anderson’s case this is particularly true, when they are denied to us.