Food as Memory: Meals That Sustain Me

 

Firefly Grille in Nashville, Tennessee
My favorite neighborhood restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, has closed. I had many great meals–and have just as many great memories–from this lovely, quirky place: work lunches to Valentine’s Day dinners, celebrating a book deal to honoring friends on their birthdays. Thank you, Firefly Grille, for all the years of hosting me and mine.

Oftentimes, food is about more than nutrition. It can be about holidays, like the Thanksgiving my middle sister, Ginny, volunteered to make the dressing. Why she did so is a question I don’t think will ever be answered satisfactorily. And why any of us thought this was an acceptable idea, I cannot, to this day, some four decades later, explain. When Ginny took the pan out of the oven, the over-baked concoction wasa disturbing shade of green. Not peaceful, like a newly mown lawn. Or festive, like a Christmas tree. We tried to swallow a bite or two, really we did—Wilsons are a supportive people—but we couldn’t stomach it. Even our trusty Lab, Sloopy, who was known for eating out of garbage cans up and down the street, took one whiff and backed away slowly.

Or food can be about mourning. After we buried my father in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi, our extended family gathered at a cousin’s house. I went round and round that dining room table. Ham, rolls, pink cake. Potato salad, stuffed eggs, congealed salad. I had some guilt about eating with such gusto when my precious father was dead, but the drawn-out days of funeralizing had depleted my spirit and my body. That food replenished me both physically and emotionally, as it was prepared by hands that loved us, and served on china used by generations of our family.

Both of these memorable meals took place in homes, but there are several restaurants that have their place in my heart as well. Eating in a restaurant can be more than a means to get out of the kitchen. Sometimes booking a table revolves around matters of life and death.

Café Annie, Houston, Texas: My mother was receiving treatment at M.D. Anderson for a second cancer diagnosis. After her surgery, and the resulting “all clear,” my parents and I went out to dinner to honor the milestone. I can’t recall what we ate—although I do know the wine was Joseph Phelps—but I can remember the gratitude.

The Brick Room, Fredonia, New York: For several summers, my husband and I met friends from nearby Buffalo here while in the area on our annual vacation. A picture taken on one of those nights captures our delight at being with one another. Although one of those friends has since died, that simple contentment—good food and good fellowship—still offers itself to me every July when we drive through town.

Zola, Nashville, Tennessee: When I moved to Nashville in the early nineties, I heard buzz about a restaurant called Zola. It quickly became my go-to spot when my parents came from Mississippi to visit or friends planned to gather. One night in particular stands out.

“We want you to meet this guy,” said some co-workers. I wanted to meet a guy, too, but I wish they had warned me that he had a record, and not of the musical variety. But the food was delicious, and not even the prospect of dating a felon could dampen my enthusiasm for the place.

The Brick Room and Zola are no longer in business. I never had another meal at Café Annie and I haven’t been back to Houston in twenty years. Both my parents have crossed over. And although he was handsome and charming, I did not marry the man with the checkered past.

Yet these memories sustain me.

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