For this week’s column I reveal the strangest birthday dinner of my life.
By John Kessler
This year I spent my birthday in New York rather than at home, dining with a stranger (who turned out to be a television star) rather than my family, and with octopus rather than cake. And it ended with a fever delirium. All in all, my 49th was one of the stranger days I’ve experienced in quite some time.
The day began early that morning in a windowless Midtown accounting office boardroom with my fellow members of the James Beard Foundation journalism awards committee. It was one of those hermetically sealed meetings, where the sandwiches come to you, and everyone talks through mouthfuls of panini and cookie.
The meeting broke up in the midafternoon, and we exited to the street and stood around in a circle chatting before going our separate ways.
“What are you doing tonight?” asked the New Yorkers in the crowd.
I didn’t quite feel like saying, “Well, I’m going to treat myself to a birthday dinner for one.”
You don’t go and mention birthdays to relative strangers because they will feel obliged to drop their plans and fete you out of pity, or at least look for a cupcake and a candle. That’s not something 49-year-old men should be encouraging.
“I’ve got some family in town, so I’ll probably hang out with them, ” I lied, a little.
True, my nephew in Brooklyn was talking about joining me for a birthday celebration, but he was also freaking out about a big work project, and I could tell he wouldn’t be able to break away. My brother lived outside the city, but he was currently writhing in bed with a nasty stomach bug that I had seen him develop the night before. I had a standing invitation to take a train for an hour to go spend my birthday watching him turn various shades of green. Fun times.
I had cousins and friends I could call, but I ran into the same problem. “Hi, it’s me! I’m in New York. Want to have dinner with Mr. Lonelyfoodie on his big day?” I mean, ick.
I felt strangely tired. Instead of going for a jog, I collapsed on the bed. I woke up a couple of hours later feeling dizzy and thinking a walk and an early dinner would do me good. I had just the plan.
I walked the 20 blocks or so to Marea, an Italian seafood restaurant on Central Park South that I had long wanted to try. Chef Michael White’s food always sounded unlike any other whenever I read about it. I scored a seat at the bar next to a man with serious-looking cuff links. When he got up to leave, a cheerful blond woman asked if the seat was free. “It is? Great!” she beamed.
I looked at the menu and it made my stomach lurch. Toasts heaped with sea urchin roe and thin sheets of the cured pork fat called lardo? It sounded so interesting but too rich to face. I ordered a signature dish — fusilli pasta with octopus and bone marrow. “That’s my favorite dish here, ” said the blonde.
Before I could answer, the bartender broke in: “I love your show! I watch it all the time.”
I watch little television, so I was unaware I was sitting next to the star of the Food Network show “Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa D’Arabian.” She was given the show after winning a season of “The Next Food Network Star” with her super frugal approach to home cooking.
“You can make a beautiful dinner for four with only 10 dollars!” Melissa told me after I inquired. I went, “Humph, interesting.” She showed me the pictures of her four adorable girls on her iPhone sleeve. I showed her a picture of my three girls but didn’t tell her I was a food writer because I felt like a dork for not knowing her show. The conversation petered out. We turned to our iPhones.
And then our pasta with octopus and bone marrow arrived. Two identical bowls, placed in front of us in unison. We got paired bread service and wine service. We were having dinner together, whether we intended to or not.
I told her about me, and she laughed and pushed aside my concerns about not knowing of her celebrity. We discovered we grew up in the same place, and were both children of psychoanalysts (no fainting couch of roses, that) who had likely worked together. She was smart, funny, unpredictable.
The pasta was troubling me. It had a deep, strange flavor that I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I knew it should be wonderful and yet it was giving me the heebie-jeebies. Ah, yes, my brother’s stomach bug.
I asked to have the rest of the pasta boxed up. I paid the check and ignored the four chocolate truffles that came with it. I wanted to give Melissa a hug and thank her for making this star-crossed birthday bearable. But I didn’t want to get her sick. And I didn’t want to sit through a piece of cake.
So I struggled back to the hotel and fell into bed. My family called to sing to me, and it sounded like they were at the bottom of a well. I spent most of the next day in that feverish, delirious state between sleep and wakefulness. That box of birthday pasta was waiting for me when I fully woke up.
As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s chief dining critic, John Kessler leads the AJC’s Dining Team.