I’m not sure it’s ethical to state this in a publicly accessible online forum, but my students at Goucher this year are an extraordinary group. I’m also not sure I should single out a recent story, which had an enormous effect on me. In part, I realize now, because I have lived it. It centers on a middle-age woman’s memory of the best peach she ever ate. But, of course, its true subject is memory, how delectable the peach seems in hindsight.
There was much discussion if the peach was, in fact, the best the woman had ever eaten or if memory had shaped it that way. I’d vote for both, and I invite people here to name the “best” foods they’ve ever eaten, defined not by objective criteria (execution, ingredients, taste, etc.) but by emotional experiences. For example, the best slice of pizza I’ve ever eaten by objective standards was on Jan. 1 at DiFara’s in Brooklyn. But my memory would insist on a Mexican pizza ordered from Al Pacino’s after a long trip home from Pittsburgh, when I was weary and very, very hungry. I can date that pizza almost to the day; Sujata Massey and I had driven up to Pittsburgh together and, on the way back, we listed to the S.J. Rozan novella “A Tiger’s Tale” on audiotape. It was a lovely fall day in 1998. Or maybe early summer. I remember how the sun looked, going down over Western Maryland, how relaxing it was to listen to Patricia Kalember deliver S.J.’s well-crafted story.
So, to begin:
Best Mashed Potatoes: At the bottom of the Grand Canyon, when I was 13 and rode a mule to the bottom and back, with my intrepid mom.
Best cheeseburger: A quarter-pounder in McDonald’s in Knoxville, Tenn., 1993. Yeah, I said McDonald’s.
Best ice cream: Wherever locals insisted we go in Milwaukee, circa 1981.
Best peanut clusters: A quarter-pound purchased at Eddie’s grocery store and consumed with a martini on the eve of a long-awaited vacation, 1997 or 1998.
Best green chile-cheeseburger: New Mexico, circa summer 1985, and I didn’t even mind it made me sick later.
Best fajitas: The first I ever had, at La Margarita, May 1982. “The borracho beans are key,” my companion said. And, as luck would have it, we ran into a local who explained the origins of fajita to us.
Best Thai food: Galway, Ireland, 2003.
Best oysters: Ditto. Actually, outside Galway, on a cool-to-us summer day. We had been driving for quite a bit when we stopped and we were famished. But the oysters would have been astonishing under any circumstances, so fresh they tasted as if they had been taken from the bay after we ordered.
Best (and so far only) strawberry mojito: Bank, New Orleans, this year. It was better than morphine for my travel-tortured soul. Consumed with roasted oysters.
Best meal: Some cantina outside Cuernavaca, Mexico, where a group of us were taken by a Mexican journalist who had spent the day giving us a tour of sewage problems in the area. Our appetites were surprisingly robust.