Unless you were raised in a libertine family, with sound wine-and-food pairings at every meal, you’ve probably had an experience like this: the first great meal, the one that wakes up your senses and makes you, ever after, a determined hunter of remarkable gastronomic moments. Alice Waters and Julia Child, for example, have each told of their first meals in France as young women—specific stories, about specific meals. And although the food was doubtless important, I suspect it also had to do with the fact that both women were abroad, alive to new experiences, and enthralled by the very idea of French cuisine.
Anyway, back to food: I was raised in Berkeley in the 1970s and ’80s, so I ate occasionally at Chez Panisse in the old days—my very first dinner date with a girl, in fact, was in the ninth grade at the Chez Panisse Café, shortly after it opened. We ordered the now-famous calzone and had a great time. I had exactly $20 to pay for the entire meal—a single 20-dollar bill—and I recall that the calzone, with no drinks, salads, or desserts, came to $19 and change, after tax. The waiter, in other words, got no tip, for which I’m eternally ashamed. But the truth is that I was a kid at the time. I enjoyed myself, to be sure, but you have to be receptive to food in ways that I was not. It’s like love, I guess; the heart has to be primed. And despite a lot of good meals and a healthy love of eating, that moment didn’t come for me until my mid-20s.
I was a graduate student, 26 years old, getting a PhD in literature at UC Santa Cruz (they would never call it “English” there), and I’d fallen in love with one of my undergraduate students. (I know, I know … but we only started dating after she completed my creative writing course.) I’ll call her SD—a warm and lovely Southern blonde who found me vaguely ridiculous—and it emerged during our relationship that she wanted to try writing about food. She began reading M. F. K. Fisher, and we talked about just how good Fisher’s prose truly was, and then SD’s parents gave her an extravagant birthday present: dinner for two at a fabulous San Francisco French restaurant called Alain Rondelli, since closed. I have no idea what I wore—Levi’s and a plaid shirt, probably, given that I owned little else. But I do recall that SD, who had great fashion sense, wore a strappy little slip of a dress that few women over 27 would attempt. But of course she was 21, and she knew what she was doing.
Seated in the quiet, elegant room, the kind with padded walls, pads under the white tablecloths, padded banquettes, and not very many tables, we ordered the nine-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Neither of us had ever done anything of the sort, and we were very nervous. The room felt so quiet and subdued, and we were so young and loud. We had to turn down the volume on ourselves, in a way, and lean close and giggle and whisper quickly about how restrained and fancy it all seemed. But the first pairing was like a shot across the bow of our lives, for both of us: foie gras with some sort of port wine–fig deal and Sauternes. Now, I’m sure there was more to this dish, given that the chef was considered one of SF’s finest at the time—but the only memory that lingers is the electric discovery of how much my mouth could actually do for my sense of well-being. It breaks my heart that I don’t recall that meal with more precision, not least because I know that I wrote up notes on the entire meal that very night to save for later in my life. If only I could find them!
Instead, I have to resort to impressions: one mysteriously interesting course after another, building up to and through some sort of Dungeness crab in a sauce gribiche, crisp-skinned salmon in a potato-tarragon coulis, a filet mignon, cheeses, and on and on and on, until I was full in a way I’d never been full before. Luscious nourishment and soothing alcohol seemed to have seeped through every vein in my body, creating a perfectly even sense of fulfillment and enrichment, physical and emotional. I’m sure it was equally great for SD, who already was a budding foodie. And then even more food arrived. And even more wine. And hours passed, and even more food arrived. And even more wine. Our laughter became like water flowing downhill, and the light in there felt like a candlelit bedroom—and then I noticed that one of SD’s breasts had escaped her dress.
She was talking and laughing and I was talking and laughing, and one of her breasts was simply in the room, the way the chairs and tables were. It occurred to me to wonder if anyone else had noticed this, so I glanced at a nearby table. Two middle-aged couples sat together there, having a lovely night out—and by middle-aged, incidentally, I mean the age that I am today, which is to say 40ish. One of the men, who wore a pressed white shirt, nice jeans, and shiny loafers, had lost focus on the group’s conversation and was simply staring at SD’s breast, his mouth slightly open. To his right, his wife was just then looking at his face, wondering why he was distracted, and she followed his gaze to its object. Her eyes had a very different reaction than his to the sight of SD’s breast, and her face leaped into annoyance and I snapped out of my reverie and alerted SD to her wardrobe malfunction. We both laughed and carried on with our night, and soon we had paid the check and walked into the darkness of Clement Street, the glittery Chinatown of the Richmond District.
I don’t think I ate much the following day—caloric bank account more than healthy, a desire to guard those taste memories—and I knew immediately that the night was a kind of beginning for me. I also knew that SD’s breast was a critical part of that beginning. As a social gaffe, it was inconsequential—more innocent than anything else—but it expressed the feeling of being young and drunk not just on beer or wine coolers or whatever else we’d been chugging all our young, dumb lives, but on a coherent and well-cast spell of not-quite-erotic joy. It expressed the kind of release and freedom and even therapy that awaits us at the best of tables. The night must have meant something to SD, as well: She went on to culinary school, has since written a cookbook or two, and has a great career as a food writer. I see her in the neighborhood grocery store once in a while, with her two beautiful little boys—ridiculously beautiful, in fact, as if they’re bound to be models or movie stars—and I always think that her easy smile carries a trace of that night.