Please forgive me if these words seem written in haste. But you see, I haven’t much time.
I’ve made a terrible mistake these past weeks. I’ve spent them in a perpetual state of self-denial and self-torment, all for the sake of shedding a few pre-holiday pounds. Each hour in the gym became a credit towards a future indulgence: a forkful of pecan pie, a bite of Christmas quiche or (my personal favorite) bits of crispy turkey skin stolen when no one is looking.
But alas! That was before the realization that my days are numbered, each pedal on the recumbent bike speeding me closer to the end of the world, an end that the Mayan calendar––according to some––has penciled in for December 21st of this year.
Faced with the awful truth of my impending doom, I did what any self-respecting yo-yo dieter would do; I began planning my last meal.
That the feast would be best enjoyed amongst family and friends was a given. Calorie content, glycemic impact and nutritional value would be neither considered nor accepted as appropriate dinner conversation topics. Eating with one’s hands would be encouraged, as would simply falling face first into the dessert course.
But what about the food?
“Best ever” foods are the obvious first choice, dishes forever branded in memory, either for their extravagance or for their extrinsic qualities. For me, that dish would be the intriguingly-named “ouzi” at New York’s Moustache Pitza, a dish I ate once nearly 15 years ago but one that has continued to haunt my thoughts ever since. Every so often, I try in vain to find a recipe that closely resembles its general makeup––rice, almonds, chicken and spices, spilling forth from a tender shell of pastry––but all fail to produce a candidate that comes close to resembling the toothsome phantom in my mind. Football-shaped and priced at just $15, it makes for a meal that is far more sentimental than self-indulgent. But add in the cost of a last-minute plane ticket during peak travel time, and I think you could easily consider it a splurge.
I can’t overlook the guilty pleasures, the perfectly delicious, profoundly bad-for-me comforts I reach for in my happiest, saddest and most hedonic moments. Chocolate ice cream with thick ribbons of crunchy peanut butter, greasy barbecue spare ribs from the Chinese takeout, pre-portioned cookie dough right from the freezer… Delicious, dependable and completely forbidden, like an ex-boyfriend I swear I’ll never call again. Of course, cookie dough never forgot my birthday.
Then again, perhaps momentary gratification isn’t as gratifying when those moments are your last. It’s hard not to consider the comfort that would come from revisiting the tastes of my childhood and the memories married to them. Many are lost in time, like the gingerbread house my mother used to make, melded together with painstaking precision, molten sugar standing in for stained-glass windows. While she’s still an avid baker, the arthritis in her hands makes the intricate construction nearly impossible.
Many others I’ve long since lost my taste for. Why I ever enjoyed liver sausage sandwiches on doughy white bread, I’ll never know, but at times I think I could try to love them again, their taste forever linked to loud cartoons, the feel of well-worn shag carpeting and the smell of crayons.
With all of these choices, both sumptuous and sentimental, why then, do I find myself gravitating towards something as quotidian as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet? Specifically, the one at Shoney’s, a family restaurant chain that still has a smattering of a presence in the southeastern U.S.
Could it qualify as a “best-ever” meal? Possibly. I was roughly six years old the last time I ate at a Shoney’s. In those days, eggs, French toast sticks and bacon held a special place in my heart now reserved for things like camembert, duck confit and, okay, bacon. And the all-you-can-eat factor adds a certain extravagance. But still, it’s a stretch.
I’d be quick to place it in the “guilty pleasure” category for the mix-and-match breakfast cereal station alone if it weren’t for the sad fact that I can barely remember most of the many other tastes piled upon my buffet plate. A few things stand out: sausage patties cooked to near-burnt (in a good way), for example, but little else.
Nostalgic it most certainly is. Each Thanksgiving, my family traveled from Chicago to Florida to visit my grandparents, leaving long before dawn to avoid traffic. I’d be asleep by the time we hit the highway, and when I’d awaken, we’d be in the parking lot of the Jasper, Indiana, Shoney’s, far enough away from home to proclaim ourselves officially on vacation. Starving and slap happy, we’d stuff ourselves the way only kids facing two weeks without homework can. And yet, as profound as this remembrance is, it too is also empty of specifics. Like listening to a CD of Broadway highlights without ever having seen the show.
Why is it then that this meal feels so important to me? Why do I find myself reaching for the map at least once a year to calculate exactly how long it would take––5 hours, 24 minutes––and what time I’d have to leave––2:30 a.m.––to make breakfast?
Maybe it isn’t the food I’m hungry for. Maybe the real craving I’m yearning to sate is a return to a period in my life when there was still so much to look forward to: so many meals to be devoured, so much life yet to be drunk. What could taste better, really, than knowing all the best tastes you’ll ever have are still yet to come? Does a feeling have a flavor? I suspect it’s like Belgian waffles with whipped butter and syrupy peaches.
The best part of my doomsday dinner? I can wear sweatpants.