Pulling a piece of string between my thumb and forefinger I will always search for a knot or snag, somewhere to stop, a blight to measure the rest of the smooth string against. No matter how much string I have to play with – long, uninterrupted lengths – my fingers will always find that knot.
There are thousands of moments every day when I miss you. When my alarm goes off in the morning I miss your annoyed groan before I sneak sleepily out of the room. When I’m singing really loudly in the car, beating on the steering wheel and tapping my lazy left driving foot, I miss your pitch-perfect harmonies. When I change lanes in an intersection I miss you carefully explaining that it’s unsafe. Same when I forget to indicate, break suddenly without checking my mirrors or cross double lines to chuck a U-turn. I miss you calling me Fangio.
Adult me and kid me aren’t that different. We like lots of the same things and look quite similar; same hair and eye colour, above-average tallness, below-average coordination. We like pratfalls and singing, reading books and over-eating; we both change into our pyjamas the moment we get home from anywhere after 6pm; we fear losing the people we love and struggle to be our best for them, keeping them safe with the force of our effort; we’re both double-jointed in our fingers and our favourite movie is Home Alone.
There’s vulnerability in giving pleasure. Get your mind out of the gutter. Or, keep it there, but cover yourself up and consider the anxiety, shame, fear, shyness, insecurity and uncertainty that compete with desire when trying to pleasure someone in the, ahem, Biblical sense. Drunken people, Quagmire (giggity), narcissists and (some) lovers under the age of 22 are excused.
History’s great travellers know the importance of a good bite. From Odysseus sitting down to barley, wine and beast at feast after feast, to the Griswald family dining by the Eiffel Tower on European Vacation. Food and travel share a timeless romance, like salt and pepper, cheese and wine, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, bread and butter. Just as food can influence where you journey, geography can enhance the pleasure of food; fish and chips are elevated by the presence of waves; tacos come even closer to heaven in their homeland and McDonald’s always tastes better in a car, en route to anywhere. Conversely, French food falls flat in Fiji and seafood doesn’t belong on aeroplanes. New York City bulges with food that tastes better within its boroughs: bagels, pretzels, hot pastrami sandwiches and the other heated delicacy, hot dogs. As ubiquitous as their yellow cabs and subway rats, the great city’s culinary specialties are rarely more than three feet away. After a magical meal, late night wander and pit stop at Otto’s Shrunken Head, the siren song of the hot dog calls. But not just any hot dog. Not the pale pink, lukewarm and bloated dogs in the carts that crowd the sidewalks; a late-night/early-morning post-dinner hot dog calls for the top dog: the Crif Dog. On St Marks Place, noted in the history and guide books as the creative turf of Basquiat, Warhol and Hendrix, the downstairs kitchen pumps out wieners into the wee hours. At 1:45am I order The Crif Dog, a ‘handmade naturally smoked beef and pork dog’ ($2.75), with mustard, ketchup, sauerkraut and relish (all free additions). There is no method to my order, just a fierce love for mixed meats and condiments. Like other excellent foods – burritos, baked potatoes, doner kebabs – my dog is dressed in foil; I peel back the silvery suit and take a bite. It’s magnificent. And blisteringly hot. With each bite, I inhale sharply and audibly at the heat, as if sucking in cool air while I chew and swallow will save my oesophagus. It doesn’t, but I can’t slow down. The bun to meat ratio is a study in perfection, the toppings generous. Bite after toothy, hissing bite of the smoked and deep-fried sausage goes down, my panting justly comparable to an overheated canine. This place wipes all of St Marks’ lofty names from the books with a ketchup smeared hand, and where they once were the page now glows with two neon words: CRIF. DOGS. And the very best thing is you can eat them with one hand, while travelling. Unless you order three. And you really should.
My lacklustre high school career is most memorable for the mornings I’d turn up, say hi to my friends and have them silently turn their backs to me. Bitches. Defeated, I’d retrace my steps, catching two buses home and taking to my room. Away from it all I found comfort in books and a bigoted eating plan. It started with orange foods only, then white foods only, frozen peas, pineapple rings, then the next thing, and the next – always with the same narrow focus. I was lonely and isolated, but at my own hand, which felt like a victory. Half my life later I have no time for bitches and bristle at the suggestion of food restrictions. Half my life later and my world started to tip on its axis again; all the good pooling on the low side and me stuck clinging to the high side, unable to let go. But this time my friends didn’t turn away from me and I embraced an equal opportunity, all-inclusive, enthusiastically excessive approach to eating. After work one night, over a redemptive bowl of Pho, I met a girl who orbited just a couple of degrees outside my social sphere. She had blonde hair, a big grin, a tiny, determined dog and before I even realised we were friends, she was calling me on a Saturday morning to invite me to breakfast. Hip to both my reluctance to leave bed and habitual avoidance of social situations she’d cleverly make the call from outside my house, leaving little room for me to wriggle free with an excuse. She also fast understood the intense lure of breakfast. She knew when to push me and at exactly what point I’d pull away – we became firm friends. Then she moved to New York, on the side of my world where all the good was pooling. We were reunited when I visited her new city, where she gave up her life/work/friends/babes/running/sleep to hunt down hot dogs, ramen, burgers, bagels, amusement parks, cookies and squirrels with me. Mid-way through my stay, snazzy in our Sunday best and with a humid breeze at our backs, we wait on the street for a table at Tartine. The shoebox-sized bistro, cuddled by a corner in the West Village, knocks out home-style French fare from its matchbox-sized kitchen. We order French green lentil salad with feta, roasted red pepper, crispy shallots and lemon dressing ($10), that is tangy, cool and mealy, and has us scraping the plate with duelling forks. My pal rules that the spicy chicken with guacamole and French fries ($18) is ‘fucking incredible, dude’ and my grilled sirloin steak with red wine Bordelaise sauce and French fries ($24) is heart-red rare, rich and bang on. The room is small enough to enjoy snippets of NYC dinner conversation, sing Happy Birthday with the next table over and eat from your friend’s plate while she watches the world go by. We pay the bill (cash only) and walk home past the darkened, quiet shops on Bleecker, through the ghostly, night-still parks with their sleepy hydrangeas and across the vast city blocks, sometimes chatting and sometimes not. She lives on the other side of the world now, a life that is full and wild and spirited and young and not at all convenient for breakfast on the weekend. Still, even from all the way over there, in the haze of her fun, she’ll send me regular messages to make sure I’m ok. And even if I’m not ok at the time, those messages make me so.
When I was a kid, my mum’s friend Judy Pinn made an old pair of scissors disappear. On reflection I realise she made us turn around and close our eyes plenty long enough to slip them under the rug, or drop them in a pot plant, but at the time it felt like magic. Yeats once said, ‘the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.’ True story. Like anchovies and choko and okra and oysters. GOB Bluth once said, ‘What’s this? A stuffy office meeting? Perhaps it’s time for some Office Magic.’ And what’s Office Magic? ‘Sometimes it’s as simple as turning 10:30 in the morning into… lunch time!’ True story. And, as Yeats and Bluth would no doubt agree, some things are undeniably magical: tempering chocolate, cacio e pepe, popping candy and poached eggs. On a still NYC evening we wander from Ave B to dinner at WD-50, on Clinton Street. The dining room is unassuming, relaxed and comfortable; we sit at a table by the kitchen and each order the seven-course tasting menu, ‘From the Vault’ ($90). Between the amuse bouche and our first course of beef tongue with cherry-miso, quinoa fries and king oyster (the tongue is sliced fine; rich and livery) conversation swings from dumplings being made of stolen dead bodies, to a passenger dying mid-way through a long-haul flight, and something to do with opera singer Rita Hunter and a deep fryer. Edamame gazpacho with peekytoe crab, pomegranate and pickled ramp is sweet, cool and mellow. David Bowie croons his Space Oddity, we hum along. Service is paced to let us relish and rave after each dish, the next appearing before we have time to wonder. Monkfish with red pepper oatmeal, black olive mochi and turnip silences the table – the fish perfectly seasoned, the mochi a sticky, fried, twisted tater-tot. The smoked duck with parsnip ‘ricotta’, cocoa nibs and black vinegar is full-caps fantastic. I can’t remember why, but my notes read: DUCK!! We savour the unimaginable passionfruit ‘tart’ with sesame, Argan oil and meringue and it’s clear that Wylie Dufresne is some kind of crazy conjurer and WD-50 heady under his spell. Our waiter, originally from Namibia, enthusiastically describes each course. He is warm and interested and when we ask his favourite dish he rattles off a list before offering, matter-of-factly and without bitterness, ‘I try to make up for the many days I went hungry’. Then he beams again and shows us to the door, wishing us a good evening and fun vacation. Out on the street, debating a hot dog chaser, it occurs that I’m beyond lucky to have never gone without food – and what’s beyond luck? Magic.
‘Help me! I’m lost in The Ramble!’ My mind screams. But no one can hear my desperate, hungry thoughts. ‘Help me!’ I mime as I think the words. Again, my cognitive cry is inaudible and does nothing to attract the attention of fellow wanderers in Central Park’s overgrown gardens. I wipe my sweaty palms on my dress, swap my bag from one shoulder to the other and squint each way up a diverging path. Where it breaks through the canopy the sun sears my bare shoulders red, my long, tangled hair clings to my clammy neck. ‘Please, somebody, how do I get out of here?’ I ask no one, a timid tourist, too scared to speak to strangers. Tears sting my eyes as my gait escalates from casual to frantic. ‘Why did I ever come here?’ I moan in my mind, ‘I’m not cut out for travel.’ As I walk in the direction of what I think sounds like traffic, a sinister man approaches. ‘Please don’t let him talk to me,’ I plead with the universe. He comes closer, and closer, before reaching out to me… and handing me a camera. In broken English he asks me to take a photo of him with his kids, who I didn’t see standing behind him. I sigh heavily with relief, take the picture with shaking hands and hope he checks it then asks someone else to take another. Feeling weepy, I throw myself down on the nearest bench and try to slow my breathing. I may have only been ‘lost’ in The Ramble for up to five, and no more than eight minutes – but I’ve been carrying, and resisting, a Levain Bakery cookie for close to twenty-five. ‘I just want this cookie so – OMG squirrel!’ Momentarily distracted by exotic, foreign vermin, me juggle cookie, iced tea and bag, scrambling to get a picture of the Disney rodent. Too late. Cookie steals my attention back from the absconding squirrel and I reflect on our journey. After disembarking at the wrong subway station (it’s my thing) and walking three long, hot Upper West Side blocks, I finally made it to Levain. Or heavain, if you will. The tiny basement bakery was packed, I felt awkward and rushed so ordered only one: the dark chocolate peanut butter chip. I clutched it to my chest and scurried away. I covered the same long, hot blocks to get back to Central Park, looking for a quiet patch of grass in this giant city where I could sit and savour my precious. Then came The Ramble. And here I am all alone, sweating, afraid and barely managing to resist me cookie. The suspense is unbearable; me want the cookie. I feel a second wind, I feel a wave of hunger, convincingly dressed as determination. Me grab cookie and stride with purpose. I follow paths up rock stairs, dusty tracks, through the undergrowth and past a deserted go-kart track until I see it. Through the trees I see lawn, scattered with families and groups of friends, toddlers toddling and tourists touristing. My pace quickens, my heart races as I push through the shrubs and burst into the field like a loon let loose. I circle and circle and circle, an anxious cat settling, and, finally, I sit. Before arse touches grass I’ve taken my first bite and it is glorious. How do they get the little blobs of peanut butter so evenly spread through the dough? Sticky, salty flavour-bombs. Cookie’s thin crust is al dente and begging to be bitten, it’s chocolate guts all at once fluffy and moist and dense. Me love this cookie. Me forget me very long journey and me wish me bought more.
I ran away to New York City to try and shake a heavy heart. Ran away from all the people who know best, the people I don’t show my busted heart anymore. I ran away from the life I wanted, but was too scared to fight for. I ran away from him and desperately hoped he’d make chase. When I’m running, I like to play it cool – I like to pretend that I’m running toward something. Like when you’re running for a bus, but see the doors close and watch it pull away from the kerb before you catch up, so elect to keep running for a bit. You never call out, ‘hey, bus! Wait!’ Cause you weren’t really ever running for that bus, you don’t care that you missed it, you were just jogging to get your heart rate up a bit. Maybe burn a few cals. So, I ran toward New York City and it’s food. I ran toward bagels and hot dogs and giant salty pretzels, toward meatballs and pastrami and cookies, toward pickles and lox and lobster rolls. The red-eye from LA leaves me tired, sweaty and giddy; my first day in NYC has the same result. A deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, baked eggs and coffee fill the hole, but don’t touch the ache. I want comfort; I want soup. The whole world cries into soup: the Jews and their Matzo ball, the Thais and their Tom Yum Goong, the Vietnamese and their Pho. Ukranians and their Borscht. In NYC, on a heavy-hot night, I choose Momofuku Noodle Bar and Japanese soup, ramen. We’re offered a twenty-minute wait, and are seated in five. It’s busy and it’s loud and it’s somewhere to sit after running so far. We order soy sauce eggs, the murderously good pork buns and ramen named for the restaurant. The broth is balanced, clear, creamy with pork fat. Cabbage, shallots, seaweed, shredded pork shoulder and a perfect poached egg jostle for attention, overshadowed by slabs of soft, fatty pork belly and a messy tangle of pliant noodles. I drain the large bowl – it’s equal parts satisfaction and comfort and sustenance to keep running. But you can’t run forever. And when I stop running, life is time spent between the moments when my heart pounds frantically in my chest, trying to get out, trying to get back to him. So I eat a lot of soup.
My best first date involved cold tofu satay, which I didn’t finish due to whirring flocks of butterflies. My worst first date was at Billy Kwong, where at the waiter’s practical suggestion of how best to enjoy the share menu, my dinner companion deadpanned, ‘why would we share? I’m not sharing.’ We ate our individual main courses in silence. Still, it was nice to be invited. It’s my last night in NYC and I’m going out to dinner alone, for the first time ever, having given my date the wrong date. On Mulberry Street, Nolita, Torrisi Italian Specialties occupies a small shopfront hidden behind white lace curtains, a little old-school gold leaf lettering your only clue as to what lies within. Or maybe, like me, you’ll be trying so hard to look like you know where you’re going that you’ll miss this gilt clue and walk right on by. (eds note: the trick here is to keep walking, for at least two blocks, before doubling back). After completing my detour I push, realise my mistake, and then pull the door open to… oh. Oh right, cool, yeah wow, it’s a really small restaurant. ‘You’ve never been here before, have you,’ says the waiter, after I’ve whispered my apologies. It’s not a question, more a statement of fact. I take in the tables for two, low lighting and economical square-footage… ‘Um, no?’ I hear the collective gasp of the New York ladies; the slow, grating drag of wooden chair across tile as diners with their backs to the door struggle to see; the tinkling of each jewel in the chandelier nudging shoulders with its neighbour, hissing Chinese whispers at my gaffe (eds note: there is no crystal chandelier at Torrisi) Suddenly it’s stifling. “Haha I ah, I told my friend the wrong night, because the days are all different, ah, because it’s tomorrow in Australia…’ At my romantic table for two, facing the room from the banquette, I fossick busily in my bag, for all of my important things that I don’t need and can’t find. I keep looking. My perceptive waiter, somehow sensing my ingeniously disguised discomfort, slides the first of seven prix fixe ($75) courses in front of me. I make light work of the warm mound of fleshy house made mozzarella, lolling in olive oil. Then wonder if I’m eating too fast. As he lays fresh cutlery, perceptive waiter starts with small questions: Did you enjoy that? Yes, thank you. More water? Yes, thank you. Please let me know if I can get you anything. Yes, thank you. The third of four anitpasti courses, the salmon tartare is soft and delicate, Rubenesque; like kissing. Accompanied by Everything blinis (a la Everything bagels) it’s like all the best kisses and my cheeks flush. We discuss the merits of Sydney restaurants, talk about Tetsuya. My cheeks flush. The Italian sausage pate is smooth, studded with pistachios and skimmed with piquant red pepper aspic. A handsome chef (eds note: his appearance coincided with an obvious spike on the awkward graph) is the bearer of sheep milk ricotta gnocchi with chamomile and fava beans. It is silky and soothing, a mid-meal salve and, according to my furtive notes, ‘subtle as fuck.’ A second attentive waiter wonders which other restaurants I’ve eaten at, and how long my flight was, as he pours more sparkling water. He is hip to my scene and asks only questions I know the answers to. Lemon and ginger ice cleanses the palate and cools my cheeks, before the meal finishes with delicate lemon cake, pierced with silly-good cheesy tuile. If a good restaurant complements time spent in fine company, satisfying food woven unobtrusively throughout, then surely it’s a great restaurant where the food stands up to the laser-focus of a lone diner, and whose staff offers company as gracious as their service. My perceptive waiter pulls the table out for me to squeeze past and kindly averts his gaze to avoid focusing on where my shorts have ridden up during the course of the meal. I thank him, for all of it, and head out into the steamy NYC summer alone, juggling a box of complimentary house made cookies and tugging green cotton shorts out of my crotch.