Tacos from R&R Taqueria, one of 2011’s most memorable meals. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
1) When my son Jesse was born, nearly four years ago, I went out and picked up sushi from the excellent Joss in Annapolis (along with a bottle of wine), and we ate it in the hospital that first night. Four weeks ago, I had the exact same thought when my second son was born. Turns out Joss now delivers, and we feasted on three bags’ worth (what can I say? I’ve got an inner Jewish mother. “Eat, eat . . . ”) of sashimi, sushi, and rolls at the birth center as we held and kissed and got to know our new baby. The wonderful nurse, Katya, turned out to be a sushi lover, and in between her rounds I popped pieces of yellowtail into her mouth. I’m telling you: Jewish mother.
2) “What’s going on?” I asked the young sommelier one night at a French restaurant, my attention diverted by a happy commotion in the dining room: taking of pictures, getting of autographs. “That’s the first African-American to win a Grammy,” he said. I thought for a moment. “You mean Harry Belafonte?” I said. “Uh, I believe that’s the name, yes. Mr. Belafonte,” he replied. I was with my mother and, in a moment of inspiration, asked him if he would tell “Mr. Belafonte” that he had an 84-year-old admirer in the room. Several minutes later, the man who bankrolled Martin Luther King Jr. through the ’60s walked toward the table. My mom had slid into the upholstered booth with difficulty, but now it was as if she were on rollers—she zoomed over to meet him. Belafonte was the epitome of class and grace, as nice and as warm as could be, posing for pictures and even allowing himself to be kissed. “I’m the same age as you,” he said to my mother. By which point she was covered in tears.
3) Eating in Israel was almost as revelatory as traveling the country itself, full of fascinating (and often delicious) moments: sampling a marvelous selection of goat cheeses on a farm outside of Jerusalem run by a professor of botany; eating shakshuka at the marvelous Dr. Shakshuka in Tel Aviv; feasting on a spit-roasted baby goat with apricot preserves at a B&B in She’ar Yashuv, two miles from the Lebanese border, then waking up to breakfast the next morning amid sounds of gunfire. But I want to give special mention to the night I dined at Eucalyptus in Jerusalem, where I fell in love with the red lentil soup. The chef, Moshe Basson, was in, and when he made the rounds that night, I told him how much I liked it. Every moment in Israel is intense and fraught with meaning, and I will never forget Basson’s response: “Esau* sold his birthright for this soup.”
4) In St. Louis last spring, I was craving some of Pappy’s famous barbecue, and even skipped breakfast that morning to save up room. “The lines are legendarily long,” my food critic friend texted me as I pulled up in front. Not at 11:30 on a Sunday, I thought. I thought wrong. The queue wrapped around the inside of the restaurant, went out the door, and extended down an adjoining hallway. There was a Cardinals game in just over an hour; I didn’t have all day. I slipped a ten to a waiter, who rustled up a rack of ribs and two sides in no time. There was still the problem of finding a table, so I walked across the street and perched myself on the steps of a church, getting sticky-faced as I ate my ’cue. Worth every penny, including the extra ten.
5) One of my favorite things is to take my son Jesse out for lunch, just the two of us. He does usually eat lunch at preschool, which he attends three days a week, but you don’t have to be hungry to eat (I’m not kidding with the Jewish mother thing), and so one Friday this fall I picked him up, and we drove out to the new Pearl Dive Oyster Palace for a late lunch. It was the kind of day you think of when you think of autumn, all falling leaves and cool but not stinging air, and we walked the length of 14th Street hand in hand, banging out a pretty respectable version of “Green Chimneys” by the great Roy Haynes—Jesse on drums, doing Roy, me on piano and bass. Then we stuffed ourselves with PD’s superlative twice-cooked fried chicken, a bowl of gumbo, a catfish sandwich, and a big slice of s’mores pie.
6) One of the things I like about the town I live in is that people really are looking out for one another. My wife and I belong to a moms’ group, made up mostly of new or recently minted mothers, almost all in their thirties or forties. It’s an informal support group, and one of its means of support is to provide meals for new mothers in the stressful weeks right after birth, when coming by real food (as opposed to a TV dinner) isn’t always easy. The night of our first delivery, my wife got a call from one of the mothers, Yung Mei, asking, “I’m thinking of hitting Mama’s Dumplings. Is that okay?” No, not okay; perfect. A couple of trays of dumplings from the excellent Rockville restaurant (more commonly known as China Bistro), and a hectic day with a week-old baby was suddenly a lot less hectic. We’d been more than fed; we’d been sustained.
7) It’s not at all uncommon for me to eat three meals out in one day. Less common but far from unheard of: that those three meals occur in rapid succession. This past summer, I dragged three friends with me to the Eden Center, the area’s de facto Little Vietnam, and showed them, I hope, the practical demands of a job commonly thought to be a romantic idyll. We moved from steaming bowls of delicately balanced pho at Pho Xe Lua to some of the best bánh mì in the area at the tiny carryout sandwich shop Nhu Lan to a seven-plate meal at the new and rewarding Viet Taste. My friends ignored my entreaties to pace themselves, and surrendered shortly after the start of round three. Pikers.
8) I expected Little Serow, the new Thai restaurant from Komi’s Johnny Monis, to be a chefy interpretation, as most of these vehicles from pedigreed chefs are—a self-aware mash-up of East and West that leans a lot more West than East. Given that Monis has made a career out of defying convention and expectation, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the result: an earnest, deeply loving, lightly translated take on northern Thai cooking. If Little Serow is dabbling, I’d love to see more dabbling.
9) Friends of mine laugh when I tell them I am willing to get in my car and drive 40 minutes at a moment’s notice to eat, standing up, at a gas station in Elkridge. This is too serious to joke about. Rodrigo Albarran-Torres is putting out the best Mexican food in the area at his tiny R&R Taqueria—posole, sopes, cochinita (baby pig) tacos, huarache, chilaquiles, and more, all of it so good you will be devising ways to return before you’ve even had your fill.
10) When my father died, in 2009, I realized very soon after that among the many things I was now missing in my life was someone to talk books with. My father was a great reader, and a passionate one. He devoured a book or more a week, and—unusual among men, who tend to disdain anything that falls outside the bounds of nonfiction—he loved fiction (especially fiction from women writers). Later that year, I decided to start a book club to bring some of that passionate book talk back into my world. My mom always hosts, and always does the cooking. My favorite of her meals is probably her simplest: ham-and-cheese sandwiches on her homemade pretzel rolls with warm potato salad, a selection of beers from Franklin’s, a local microbrewery, and a homemade coconut cake. Eating this wonderful meal while delving deep into provocative, unsettling work by Nancy Huston (Fault Lines), Susan Dodd (The Silent Woman) and Nadine Gordimer (The Pick-Up), among many others, is one of the best things in my life, and one of the highlights of every month.
*This post originally referred to Cain as trading his birthright. We apologize for any confusion.