The best meal I ever ate

I normally think of fine dining as occurring either in my own house with fancy recipes we’ve tried for fun, or more likely at restaurants where the price point comes with three dollar signs.  I can be a food snob.  But I was reminded recently of what I still consider to be the best meal I ever ate, and how judgments like that can be completely situational.

Way back in 2005, Mr. L and I (who were not yet Mr. and Mrs.) decided that Michigan was no longer the place we wanted to be, so we loaded up a U-haul and moved to Carolina–Columbia, in fact.  That sentence makes it sound easy, but in fact, it was a bit of a nightmare.  We packed up our possessions, loading a U-haul, attaching a car carrier, and filling another car with all of our stuff.  We are procrastinators; we should have gotten going on packing and purging weeks before we did, but we were lazy.  The price was two solid days of saying, “Oh my god, why do we own so much stuff? How are we going to get all of this in the truck?”  This was punctuated more than once by my sitting on the tailgate of the truck crying.  It sounds pretty pathetic in hindsight, but at the time, it was simply awful.

We finally got everything loaded and our apartment cleaned, got the dogs and the cat in the car, and started driving south nearly an entire day late.  We rode for 17 hours, me in the car, Mr. L in the truck with car hauler attached.  My cat meowed pitifully from inside her carrier for all 17 hours.  All 17.  I love her to pieces, but jeez, Louise! I wanted her to shut up.

Finally, after what seemed an enternity of gas and brake, gas and brake, traffic jams, getting lost, stopping and starting and once turning the truck around on the side of a mountain, accompanied by that infernal yowling, we drove into Columbia, South Carolina, our new hometown.  We had never seen our new apartment, and had chosen it simply for the convenience of it being owned by the same management company so we could transfer our lease.  We arrived to find the office closed, and had to wait for someone to come open up to give us keys to the new place, after which all of that loading had to be unloaded.  Upstairs, since the new place was on the 2nd floor, a fact I had forgotten.  

Just at the point that I was again about to sit down to sob on the fender, Mr. L said, “Hey, didn’t I see a Cracker Barrel across the street?”  We tossed the critters in the new apartment, locked the car and truck, and walked on over.  We were a mess–sweaty, road rumpled, at the point of complete mental exhaustion.  The hostess took us to a back table right away and said, “You look like you need some coffee.  I’ll send the waitress right over.”  The kind waitress came quickly to take care of drinks, then when we told her we were moving, said sincerely, “Welcome to South Carolina.  We’re so glad you are here!”  I then proceeded to order the most comfort-foody meal I could find on the menu: meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, with little corn muffins on the side.   It was not gourmet food.  It was not fancy, or particularly creative, or organically grown and thoughtfully curated.  It was, however, an absolute balm to my weary soul.  It was a meal I will never forget, because it gave me respite and nourishment, and a sense that we were home now.  From here, it was all strawberry pie–which, by the way was also very good. We’d be okay.  And we have been, ever since.  

Meatloaf at Cracker Barrel.  A welcome port in life’s storm.  Best meal ever.

Image

The Evolution of Dinner

This weekend, I decided it was time to pick some of those collards we’ve been growing all winter and figure out what to do with them. Not being from the South originally, collards aren’t something I grew up cooking. However, I had a handy expert at my fingertips: Paula Deen, whose recipe card set I had bought in Savannah last year, one of which was her recipe for collard greens. So armed with shears, I headed to the garden to cut down my dinner.

Collards

Into the house they went, where I cleaned the leaves from the stems like Paula said to do, by hooking them between my first two fingers and pulling toward the top of the leaf. It works like a charm, though I got a little red spot on the web of my fingers–gotta build up those collard callouses!

Collards on counter

Next I piled the leaves up and cut across them, turning them into ribbons. The stems went out to my compost bin, so they can help create next year’s crop of collards. I put a bunch of water in a pot, and some side pork and the spices Paula recommended (hot sauce being chief among them), and turned it up to heat. It was a little tricky that she called for her House Seasoning, which you can buy at her store or online, but a quick search of the internet showed me that was just equal parts salt, pepper and garlic powder, and I had all of those on hand, so I was in business. Once it had boiled for a while, I dropped my collards into the pot likker (love that!) and let them simmer on the back burner for an hour.

Collards in pot

While they were bubbling away, I put some country style ribs and a giant sweet potato from the farmer’s market into the oven to roast.

Stove

Mr. L made some corn muffins, and an hour later, voila! Dinner. And I grew at least some of it myself.

Dinner

For the collard recipe, go here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/collard-greens-recipe/index.html. I never thought I would be a collard fan, but these came out really well. Now I am contemplating the same preparation for kale, mustard greens, chard…