Food That Has Saved Me From Myself
A few years ago when I was visiting a friend in Paris, I went to more than one dinner party where the conversation went something like this:
Random woman: "Where are you from?"
Me: "Los Angeles."
Random woman: "I'm sorry."
Me: "Don't be. It's a great city, it has --"
"How many children do you have?"
"How many children do you have?"
"I don't have any children."
Silence. Then: "I'm sorry."
To make matters worse, it seemed like children were everywhere. They were sitting with their parents in cafes as I tried to make eyes at a handsome stranger graying at the temples. They were skipping up the Boulevard de Clichy French-style -- that is to say, without a care in the world. They were cutting into my time with my friend, who decided to let her child accompany us shoe shopping. It was forcing me to re-think all my life choices which, at that time, weren't particularly solid to begin with. What's so great about having children? Where did I go wrong that I didn't have a child whose chin I could dab after he or she has gulped from a frothy cup of chocolat? And finally, why can't every city have the same lenient attitude towards those who chose not to join the ranks and procreate as my home city does?
It went downhill from there. After I ditched my friend (and her kid) I roamed the streets brooding about how my life had gotten off course. I questioned the new job I would be starting once I returned home -- a job at a television studio whose only function was to pay the bills but that didn't make it any more palatable. Maybe less so. I walked myself through every work experience and berated myself for having had "attitude issues" which explained why I wasn't writing on a television show making thousands of dollars a week. I may or may not have had attitude issues and perhaps the jobs ended for reasons having nothing to do with me, but there, on those Parisian streets, everything was my fault, including failed relationships and dates that didn't call me back. I love kids, but every time I saw one I wanted to smack them for making me feel this way.
I couldn't go to the Louvre because of all the Madonnas and children. I stayed clear of the Jardin du Luxembourg because that's where parents let their children romp. And I avoided the big department stores lest there be a sale on children's clothes. My friend had one child but was also taking care of those of her live-in boyfriend. As she was busy registering them for violin lessons, I walked the streets.
And I ate.
I stopped at almost every patisserie I passed. It turns out, sugar is a great mood lifter -- for about an hour. Luckily, there were always more outlets the minute my outlook took a dip. Hell, it's not like I would run into anyone I knew as I sported a chocolate mustache so I let my cravings guide me. I downed eclairs, clafoutis. I brought a pistachio tart back to my friend to eat for dessert and devoured three-quarters of it. But the dessert that turned my mood around for the duration of the trip was a chocolate and banana tart I bought at a patisserie on the Rue de Cherche Midi. It was about the size of a saucer, with a buttery shortbread crust and the richest, chocolate-y-est ganache filling. Oh, and a glazed banana slice on top. I ate it while wandering down the narrow street, oblivious to cars and bicycles and totally uninterested in my own safety. Death would have been noble had it happened while I was in the throes of that ecstasy. A bite of that velvety chocolate combined with the hearty but feathery shortbread took me out of my head and into an amusement park of the senses that made me forget my stupid American problems and just vivre.
Years later, I had a similar experience wandering the streets of San Francisco. I don't know what it is about vacationing in walking cities, but they can go one of two ways: either I am so enthralled with my surroundings that I forget myself, or the rhythm of my steps causes my brain to rattle with self-recrimination. In this instance, I had just lost a client and was trying to avoid panicking about the future. Don't be in fear, Jessica, I heard my life coach say. Live in the abundance.
I got my chance after passing a shop selling tortas on Twenty-Sixth Street in the Mission District. A man was sitting in the window and I surreptitiously stole a glimpse of his sandwich when he smiled at me. It turns out, a torta is just a sandwich with mariachi music. I wandered some more, looking at the murals, avoiding thoughts of financial distress, but my mind kept going back to those tortas.
Finally, I circled back and went in. It was a bare-bones joint and, in true San Francisco fashion, offered delectable vegan options along with more authentic choices. As always, I debated about contributing to the horrors of factory farming and going for the meatless option, but on this day I decided to make like Anthony Bourdain and go for authenticity. I chose a torta with pulled pork, avocado, queso fresco, mayonnaise and a hundred other ingredients that made it the most delicious sandwich I may have ever eaten in my life. Gone went the financial worry as I focused intently on the myriad of flavors coming at me, from the tomato and vinegar sauce to the hard roll with just the right amount of softness inside. Gone went any vestige of loneliness as I smiled through bites at the other diners, all of us sharing in this secret of gastronomic bliss. I emerged from that torta shop a changed woman.
At the end of both trips, as I was sitting at the airport, I took myself back to the hint of banana in the ganache and the rainbow of flavors in that sandwich and it dawned on me; I am here. Now. And everything I have done, whether with an attitude or not, has led me to this place.
And it's a wonderful place.