This week’s “Restaurant Stories” column is about one of those times when you just want something fried with a drink. Promise to go back to regularly scheduled programming next week.
Comfort is Crunch and Salt
The day had started very early in a little town in western Massachusetts. My wife and I got up, looked at the morning fog that had enveloped our hotel and packed. We were among the first at breakfast, where we ate a little of our bread and cheese in relative silence. We talked about a story in that morning’s New York Times, checked our watches and declared it time to go.
We drove 10 minutes to meet our daughter, who had just spent the first night in her new college dorm. We had moved her in the previous day and then spent much of the afternoon figuring out which clothes she could squeeze into her closet, which ones she would store for the winter, and which ones we’d schlepp right back to Atlanta. Girls always overpack. At least my girls do.
We met our daughter in front of her dorm. She seemed a little disoriented from the evening before — a welcome dinner for freshmen, a movie in the student center and finally an “ice cream social” that started at 11 p.m. and had lasted late into the morning. She was startled by the sharp chill and woozy light of her first New England fall morning. We only had an hour with her before she had to take a placement exam.
We went to the little coffee shop in town. My daughter had a bagel, I had a caffe latte, my wife had nothing. Then, minutes later, standing in the middle of a campus quad, we hugged our girl goodbye as she joined a file of her new classmates heading to an auditorium for the exam.
My wife and I hiked for an hour or so in a nearby forest to clear our heads. After that, we had a three-hour drive to Boston to catch our flight home. I napped while she drove, and she did likewise when I drove. Somewhere along the way, we bought a ham-and-cheese sandwich to split in the car.
On the plane, I read a fine autobiography written by a woman who had escaped Nazi Germany, while my wife caught up on some work. I dozed off for a bit in the middle and missed out on my Biscoff cookies. I love my Biscoff cookies dunked in a cup of black coffee. They’re the best thing about Delta.
And then we were in Atlanta. I headed into the office downtown to check in, while my wife went home. I had a little time to kill before picking up my youngest child from a lesson and … dammit!
I was starving. Not for good food. Not for anything nourishing. In fact, the very idea of nourishment seemed anathema to my mood. I needed dammit food.
The meal appeared to me like a vision: fried calamari and a Manhattan. Neither are favorites. Neither are guilty pleasures. But, as soon as my mind conjured this unhealthy repast, I turned off my computer and walked over to McCormick and Schmick’s in the CNN Center.
There were only a few people in the bar, where I grabbed a stool and eavesdropped a little on a young couple having a so-so date. (He ate raw oysters and kept checking his BlackBerry; she had a creamy pasta and tried to initiate conversation topics.)
My drink came first, and it was splendid — not too sweet, with the perfect two drops of bitters. I sipped slowly.
Then, a generous portion (as well it should be for $10) of calamari suddenly appeared via stealth waiter. I pushed the sweet and mayonnaisey sauces aside and asked for lemons. Lots of lemons.
The calamari was crunchy, tender, mild, fine. I would have liked more tentacles and fewer rings. I also would have preferred if there wasn’t an unidentified black thing on the plate — an item that had apparently spent a long time in the fryer basket. Whatever. People who eat dammit food can’t worry about burnt mysteries. They just eat around them.
I was exhausted. My head hurt. My heart hurt. I was feeling sorry for myself. Fried food and alcohol. Crunchy and salty. Sweet and boozy. The comfort of empty calories.
My cellphone rang, and I saw my daughter’s face light up on it. My heart melted. My eyes watered. Sound cheerful, I commanded myself, slapping my face, alarming the bartender, smiling, answering, “Hi, Sweetie!”