A Mythological Menu

Patti Smith, Infinite Sunflowers, and the Quarantine Meals that Made Me Cry

You’ve made it to my first ISOLS newsletter post!

Yay! First of all, a funny note that I looked up ISOLS hoping that it could be the hip moniker for “In Search of Lost Smell” (a true mouthful) and apparently it’s already taken and stands for International Society of Limb Salvage, which is a bit darker than what I’m going for here - yikes. The below piece which I wrote *just for you* is not exactly bright or dark, happy or sad, but something that wraps those all together. Think of it as a special tasting menu plopped from my home into yours. I hope you enjoy and that you’ll share with me your own mythological life menus in the comments.

If for some magical reason you found your way here but are not subscribed, consider doing so to get more tidbits in your digital mailbox. I promise they won’t have anything to do with the noble pursuit of saving arms and legs (just noses! Yeah, I know, too far too soon…). I’m thinking maybe more long form writing, grocery lists, variations on an ingredient, etc etc etc.

The summer before my senior year of college, my sister mailed me a copy of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It’s a little embarrassing how much of a coming-of-age cliché it is, but perched in the crook of Weeks Bridge like a gargoyle, I scoured the entire book in one sitting, the stone turning cold under my bare thighs. Looking out over the river, I remember feeling something shiver and glow inside me. The way she catalogued her inspirations - her heroes, the books she read, the art she cherished and sought out, these medallions that appeared again and again - it was a world in which random encounters became signs; French poets, guardians; and all these symbols were her compass. I’ve carried this with me and even coined it the process of creating a “personal mythology,” how seemingly disjointed elements can become the magic threads that connect a life. Whether in a bookstore, on the street, or at a café, the possibility for something to crystallize is ever present.

Part of the low-drum sorrow of this moment for me is that this repetition - three meals a day, work from home, laundry time, call my mom, see no one – can feel like a constant narrow spiral, tightening and tightening. I miss fodder. I miss happenstances. Magic for me comes from recognizing when something is going to matter later, holding it close, tucking it into my vocabulary, and letting it be my strength until the next buoy.

In the 6 months since I first wrote about losing my smell, I’ve documented close to 500 meals on my Instagram, an average of 2-3 posts a day. It surprises me that I’ve been able to be so consistent with this practice despite my resentment towards the rigidity of other aspects of my life. This ritual documentation reminds me of the practice of Gerhard Richter, one of my favorite artists, who once took pages and pages of photographs of a sunflower field and published them in an Atlas. I wonder if something about each of those barely distinguishable iterations felt magical to him, what within the act of repetition made meaning. Certainly, Richter had commentary on what constituted a photograph, but it’s also true that eventually he picked one of these photos to paint - something stood out.  

Left: A photo I took in 2017 of the sunflower page in Gerhard Richter’s Atlas after finding a copy in the basement of a used book store. / Right: A screenshot of my recent instagram feed.

Yesterday, I was reminded of my conviction that I had the best cheesecake of my life when I was 15 in North Carolina. It was blueberry flavored and on a recurring menu at some random chain restaurant. Looking back now, I can’t help but shake my head because it probably was not a big deal, but to me in that moment, that gosh darn cheesecake tasted amazing. I had just finished performing in a big music competition I had prepared for all summer, I was on top of my world, and those bites represented sweet victory and release. This celebration meal was objectively not the best, but it became that, preserved under the dome of my memory. It’s like Patti Smith’s charming personal mythology, how we create these gems for ourselves – I folded it over and over in my mind and eventually it became the best cheesecake, and I won’t remember what it tasted like, but I’ll know it was the essense of a cheesecake, and I’ll know that with my mother to one side of me and my teacher to the other, it was bliss.

Reflecting on the thousands of meals I’ve had in my life, I recognize that the ones that stand out are an amalgamation of a million and one factors – who I’m with, how I’m doing that day, the weather and surroundings, the light and music, the food, service, company, activities, what I’m wearing, how confident I am. Even with the care I put into each meal now, I still have trouble remembering what I made just last week because everything floats in this context-less space. Sitting solo at my 24-inch table each day, I’m left to conjure up the past, waiting for a taste to unintentionally allow me to skim off some old magic.

Patti Smith’s writing punched me in the gut at 21 because she showed me how symbols can emerge when you least expect them. Who knows why we choose them or what resonances echo over the years, but that spark of recognition can surely make you catch your breath. Out of my 500-ish meals, there have been a few that reached a hand into the archive of my memory and pulled out something with a tab that read “save for later.” Without warning, these meals tugged at my tear glands, and I’ve found that in the absence of happenstances, they have given me a way to tap into my mythology again, to feel that I still am in the process of creating myself.

If I were to make a mythological menu - a list of my most cherished food memories - it would be something like the following, each corresponding to an emotion-enducing dish I have made this past half year:

  1. Blueberry cheesecake from the random unnamed restaurant in Charlotte on the eve of a big flute success, one entire summer in the making, flanked by my teacher and mother and topped with sweet anticipation and release.

  2. A non-alcoholic, sugary, bubbly beverage served on an Austrian countryside bench with the sound of at least four languages from the mouths of boisterous teens, connected purely by their incidental love of classical music.

  3. A meat and greens homemade bao heated in the microwave with a damp paper towel, accompanied by the concerned eyebrow raise of my Gong Gong who had tallied 6 bao consumed in under a quarter of an hour.

  4. A dozen Krispy Kreme glaze donuts and a shrink wrapped shiny pork sung Hawaiian bun with the scent of leather car seats.

  5. Thick Shanghai-style hand-pulled noodles and an omelet covered fried rice drizzled with a haphazard squirt of ketchup and served on top of a yellowing vinyl mat displaying faded bird stamps from years past and reflecting a concerningly dirty fluorescent fish tank.

  6. Candied hawthorns and strawberries on a stick with the sweet taste of a mother who sought a nostalgic joy for her daughter across dozens of food stands.

My quarantine versions don’t hold a candle up to the original memories, but these references come up again and again in my life, and through the process of continually creating, I find that at each encounter, I have changed too. I am sad that I am not generating new landmark moments, filled with extraordinary narrative details. But the momentary transference I get from these adjacent dishes illuminates in me the satisfaction of a life lived, a palate explored, and the hope for more food experiences, not centered on greatness but on these cosmic elements that sear a memory into my bones. I’m not cooking now to make new gold stars, but to formulate a catalogue and routine for myself founded on daily joys and to attempt to excavate once in a while the wonders of the menu already in me.

Someday, with the skills and handiwork that I’m developing, I’ll make new memories with the people I gather. I’d like to think that for now, I’m channeling Richter, putting together fields and fields of sunflowers, and that by cooking and cooking and cooking, sometimes I’ll be lucky enough to touch a bouy that takes me backwards and forwards all at once.

Leave me a comment! It’s easier to chat here than it is on Instagram! Do you have food moments that are seemingly mediocre but rise to the level of mythical? What’s in your life’s menu? Let me know.

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