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Apr 29th, 2018 | By | Category: Features, Lead Article

“The fifth best meal I have ever sat down to was at a sort of farmhouse-inn that is neither farm nor inn, in the region of New York City. The fourth best was at the same place–on a winter evening when the Eiswein afterward was good by the fire and the snow had not stopped falling for the day. The third best meal I’ve ever had was centered upon some smoked whiting and pale mustard sauce followed by a saltimbocca, at the same place, on a night when the air of summer was oppressive with humidity but the building was cool and musty under a slow turning paddle fan….and the best and second-best meals I have ever had anywhere (including the starry citadels of rural and metropolitan France) were also under that roof.” (John McPhee, “Brigade De Cuisine”, The New Yorker, February 19, 1979). I always thought that was a brilliant opening for a story. It rivals “It was the best of times…” and “Call me Ishmael.”

Unlike McPhee, most of our best meal stories don’t reoccur on the same 100 square feet of earth. Today I heard a best meal story and it reminded me of my own. I came to realize that the evaluation of “best” may have more to do with the context than the food. Here’s mine.

The second best meal I ever sat down to was in the Shenandoah National Park on the slope of Hayward Mountain. I was in the Boy Scouts and our bush-league troop was lost. We intended to climb Old Rag Mountain, but our lack of orienteering skills and good sense let us to the neighboring mountain. We did not know where we were, but we did know that we were lost. Night had fallen. We needed to set up camp and that we did. We had not eaten all day since we had been circuitously wandering for many hours. The meal consisted of a a can of Dinty Moore meatball stew. This was not your pedestrian beef stew, but the “very very special” meatball stew. Nothing had tasted quite so good. After we found our way back to civilization, I continued to eat meatball stew with considerable pleasure for some time–that is until I finally came to my senses.

The best meal I ever consumed was on the hill that leads up to Cornell University. Virginia and I had cycled from State College to Ithaca, a journey that took two days. It was the end of the second day and we had just finished a particularly challenging day of bicycling, traveling about 90 miles up and down the mountains south of Ithaca. When we arrived in Ithaca, we met a friend who taught at Cornell. The three of us needed to decide on a plan to eat, a pressing need considering our day’s effort. Virginia was a huge fan of the Moosewood Cookbook and wanted to eat at the Moosewood Restaurant. Not surprisingly it was located on the hill and directly in our sight. Me, being me, settled into a misanthropic mode, uttering that we need meat and that a vegetarian restaurant would not satisfy our dire needs. Thankfully, I lost that battle and so the Moosewood it was. The appearance, the aroma, and the textures, the tastes were overwhelmingly. I don’t know what I ate, but I liked it. I liked it a lot. I have not changed my mind about this one.

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