Food has been my wayward 13 year old this week. I’m not mad, just disappointed. Except you, airport meal. Im mad at you. Fuck you. The rest has been just different shades of beige. Underwhelming flatbreads, half-assed sandwiches, meat basted in mediocrity, broiled in ‘meh’. I kept pushing myself away from the table with a groan stuck in my throat, thinking “next time. It’ll be better next time”. But every time I sat down there was a sigh and a groan and the chattering of those chair legs on the hardwood and I started to think that maybe it was me. Maybe food just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. It would be understandable, if that were the case. With two sick grandmothers and a rocky professional life, new house with old house problems and my own poor health to worry about, I was beginning to think that maybe I didn’t have a lot of room left on my plate for anything, no matter how well seasoned or prepared.
If I was wrestling with that feeling as they waved me through security at the airport, reluctantly bailing dirt out of the hole in which I intended to bury my love for good food, the sandwich I picked up at a kiosk (that will remain nameless) showed up like a backhoe and finished that grave in one noisy handful. Sadness on a half stale bun. I boarded my plane and streaked across a pale blue sky. When I landed in Sacramento I pulled my book bag out from under the seat, packed my boohoo bullshit into it and promised not to take it out until the trip was over.
“How are you feeling, Nana Susan?” I said the words and I felt stupid the moment they whistled past my lips. Not good. She’s feeling really not good. She’s feeling like fire forged fuck-this with a solid shit hilt. Every part of her is thinning. Her hair and her skin and her muscles and her patience and that’s just a result of the thing that’s supposed to be helping her. Someone once told me that chemotherapy is just an attempt to bring you so close to death that the cancer thinks its finished its job and clocks out. Setting the house on fire to scare the burglars out.
“Everything hurts.” she said and I ran a hand through her wispy hair because there was nothing else to do.
That night, when visiting hours were over, my father and I were sitting at the kitchen table, pondering dinner in the offhanded way one might consider whether they’d left the burner on at home while their plane is crashing. I was fresh off the jetway and new to the situation, but my father had been in town for at almost a week before already, and it was a rough one. Aside from my grandmothers partner having cancer, which is plenty, my grandmother had taken a fall, or as she adorably referred to it “what the kids call a face plant”, in the backyard a few nights before. The photos they took are what sent me scrambling for the airport. She looked like she’d been hit by a blueberry cobbler with a brick in it. 12 stitches above her eye, broke her arm in three places.
The nights just got longer and the mornings earlier from there. The day’s bled together and I landed in Sacramento to find a group of righteously exhausted people.
“There’s a uh… There’s a… Whathisname… Uh.. Ramen, down the way.” My dad said, grinding the heel of his palm into his forehead, trying to mash some lucidity back in there.
“Yeah, whatever sounds good to you.”
“It’s good.” He said. ”… It’s fucking great.”
So we ordered two bowls of oxtail ramen to go, picked them up in Nanas minivan, brought them back to the house and poured the still steaming broth into mismatched Goodwill bowls. Then the noodles, the spinach, the roasted garlic, the sprouts and the hard boiled egg. Finally the oxtail, chunks of chewy looking meat wrapped around little smoked looking bones. In my bag on the floor of my grandmothers spare bedroom, my boohoos muttered something pessimistic about the meal I was about to shovel down.
Probably not very good. – Or – don’t get your hopes up.
Something shitty like that.
My dad was slurping on his side of the table, his bowl nestled in among the sympathy cards and the unpaid bills scattered around it and I lowered my expectations and my face to the bowl, sipped some broth.
Suck Me Sideways.
There was a gurgle and a rasp as my boohoos died a painful and well deserved death in the next room. A knock at a door inside me, which I answered eagerly. My groove was back. Escorted passionately into my life by that warm bowl of Taye Diggs, with its crunchy little sprouts and chewy noodles.
“Oh my god” I said.
And my dad lifted his face from his bowl, color coming back into him, that punch drunk look leaving his eyes.
“Try the oxtail” he said, and I rescued one of those swimmers from the savory butterscotch broth, picked the meat off the bones with my teeth, though I could have done it with my tongue as tender as it was. So sweet and complimentary to the salt in the broth.
We ate in silence, save the exclamations. Mouthfuls of broth, lungfuls of steam, hearts full of happy, if only for moment.
The next few days were flash paper. 100 plus degree Sacramento heat, nicotine skyline, with all the smoke from all the fires trying to consume the state of California. I did dishes and bought groceries and fed dogs and all those other little tasks that get harder to do when you’re busy fighting your own fires. Things weren’t okay, but they were managed. I had more meals, some good, some mediocre, all interesting, but I charged into each one hopefully, and I found something in each one worth hoping for. The second to last day, the nurses brought lunch into Susan’s bedroom as we sat in our folding chairs around her bed, watching baseball on a muted television. It was cafeteria food under a plastic lid and Susan picked at it with her fork. When she’d had as much of the savory stuff as she could handle, she moved on to the dessert, an eccentric looking hunk of carrot cake with a cream cheese frosting painted across the top of it. It was perfectly square, off white with chunks of neon orange embedded in it and Susan worked a corner off it, eyebrows knitted together in doubt. She chewed it carefully and we watched her eat it the way you the way you watch sick people do everything.
“That’s good.” She said.
“Oh yeah?” My grandmother said, smiling carefully, crinkling the bruise at the corner of her eye, cradling the cast on her arm.
“Yeah.” she said, smiling. “It’s good”
And they fed each other forkfuls, smiling impossibly in the face of all that awfulness, making room on their crowded plates for something good.
If you’re in the area of Kansai Ramen and Sushi House , in Sacramento California, get into that place and rearrange your brain for a bit. Really top shelf shit.
Kiki’s Chicken Place is another one of the fantastic ones. Seriously good stuff…