road trip epiphanies

The timeline is a bit of a blur.

Barbeque in Memphis. Shrimp and grits on Florida’s gulf coast. Ramen at some hole-in-the wall restaurant in Some Carolina.

I couldn’t tell you what we did in every city – but I can certainly tell you what we ate. Somewhere between the 93 hours in the car and the 6,500 miles we spent traveling the country, a great awakening occurred.

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Eating is different now; it’s not just because I’m hungry or because it’s noon and I know that means time for lunch. It’s because now I know the difference in shallots and onions. I know you salt water for pasta enough to make it taste like the ocean, not just a few sprinkles. I know the time making pasta is worth it. It might have taken falling in love with a chef to learn these things – but the scale in the bathroom can attest to the fact that my love goes much further than the man with the commercial size KitchenAid mixer.

I ate my way across America.
I gained 20 pounds in two months.
I fell in love with food.
The trip began with a decision to move in with the chef, just 18 hours and a handful of states down the road. After we moved my things from Florida to West Virginia, we just kept driving. And eating.

I can pinpoint the moment the skies opened and my palate grew three sizes. It almost didn’t happen.

The beginning of July in New Orleans is hot as hell, if you didn’t know. You’re outside for just five minutes and it makes you wonder why people there even buy curling irons, but we’d just spent eight hours driving in from San Antonio so walking to dinner sounded great.

Since our hotel was on Canal, the first four or five blocks were pretty entertaining: a midget giving lap dances, a bachelor party taking turns puking in a trashcan, a girl selling marijuana suckers.

The next three or four were romantic; holding hands on those tiny brick streets almost felt like we were in another world. It was a movie scene moment.

The ten blocks after that though, I was pissed and threatening to hail a cab.

You could miss Cochon Butcher if you weren’t looking closely – a dark storefront on the eerily empty Tchoupitoulas Street. I wiped the sweat off my face, tied my hair back and pushed the door open.

Raw meat hung drying in huge glass cases around the shop. The tables were reclaimed wood and the walls were slate. The tiny closet of a space was so cramped we had to share a table with another couple, but that didn’t even matter because the food the butcher sat in front of me was so life altering that the word delicious should be 86ed from the dictionary. It’s just not enough.

Forget yoga or Pilates. I don’t need to meditate or pray for peace. True Zen came to me as an $11 sandwich called the Buckboard Bacon Melt. Thick cut pork jowl, collards that tasted like they’d been imported from some old grandmother’s kitchen and rich, melted Italian provolone all seared between two fresh baked pieces of bread.

There’s something to be said for the production of fine dining; first dates at fancy restaurants. That’s for the beginning of relationships. That’s for when you don’t know each other very well. Those days were miles behind us.

The chef I started my journey with was sitting across the table watching me swig beer like a man and lick the juice from the collard greens off the back of my hand in a distinctly un-feminine manner.

I finished and went back for more.

I don’t fully understand why gluttony is a sin, but I know I committed it on the pancetta macaroni and cheese. I was full before I started eating, but pancetta mac and cheese? It would have been a sin to say no.

New Orleans is a newfound food lover’s mecca. The best thing about eating in a city so full of culture and vibrance is you don’t have to spend a lot to make major discoveries. Casamento’s Restaurant is a must; a dozen fresh caught oysters on the half shell are just $12. For French pastry perfection, try La Boulangerie on Magazine Street. You can fill a box with cakes and cookies for about $20. If you’re feeling brave, fried boudin balls baking under heat lamps at every gas station in town can change your life for a mere three dollars. The dirtier the gas station looks, I swear the better they taste.

We had a dinner party a few months ago and our friends are still talking about it. Since we’ve been home, the chef has been recreating our favorite meals from the trip. The baklava cheesecake is getting there. His Gouda grits are to die for. But what everyone loved was the sandwich.

We went to our own butcher and asked for the end pieces of bacon. We spent hours simmering greens in pork fat and garlic. We brewed tea as sweet as molasses and put a Swamp Kitchen record on. We played board games and told stories and made new memories that did not include midget strippers.

The thing about loving food, is loving who you eat it with. Now I just have to find the thing about going to the gym.

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