Lists of Food(s)

Lists of food(s) have been an ongoing part of my life.  First entering my consciousness as menus in restaurants, they have taken on myriad other forms.  Grocery lists; kitchen prep lists; freezer inventories; backstock pull lists; holiday baking lists; catering menus.  Some represent a form from which to make choices; on some, every item will require my attention.  Some are exciting and inspire anticipation;  others instill a sense of dread.  Food is so often a subject in my life that I find there is no escaping lists of food(s).

When presented with a menu in a restaurant, there are dozens of things to consider besides the obvious question of “What am I in the mood for?”  What are the specialties of the restaurant?  What might be in season?  What might be a good or a bad choice today?  What are my companions ordering?  What have I eaten in the past day or two, and what do I plan on eating later?  My favorite type of menu is no menu…when I am simply given a menu as a guide to what the chef has prepared that day.  Some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying are set up in this way.  Chez Panisse in Berkeley offers one menu each evening…take it or leave it.  Accommodations can be made for allergies or extreme dislikes, but you are pretty much putting yourself in the hands of the chef.  Thomas Keller’s per se in New York offers just two alternatives each night:  A Tasting of Vegetables and a Chef’s Tasting Menu.  (Charlie Trotter in Chicago offers this same, simplified choice.)  Usually one must make only a couple of decisions from these long lists.  When I am ensconced in a restaurant of this caliber, I like to believe that no one knows better what the best thing for me to eat that day would be than the chef .

Several summers ago, I had travelled to New York for the weekend to eat.  We had Sunday dinner at Blue Hill and had an awesome example of eating off menu.  Our reservation was later in the evening and when we were seated, we had already decided that we would do the Chef’s Tasting Menu we had seen posted.  Once our cocktail orders were taken, we were informed that the Tasting Menu was sold out for the night and we would need to order from the standard, a la carte listings.  Our disappointment was quite evident.  The waiter returned a few moments later to say that he had relayed our sadness to  the kitchen and if we were willing, the chef would just cook for us without a written menu.  We instantly agreed!  There were some daring dishes and many variations on seasonal themes, but overall the effect was outstanding.

Another menu that I rely on quite heavily is the one on the side of my freezer.  Decidedly less haute than the ones above, it is nonetheless appealing.  Each week, I cook some things to eat during the week and freeze them in individual portions.  I began this practice when I was working long hours in kitchens, with no desire to cook at the end of a grueling day.  Batches of chili, marinara sauce, macaroni & cheese and the like provided quick, comforting suppers when paired with a fresh salad.  Keeping track of the dozens of frozen blocks of food necessitated the creation of a freezer inventory.  This became my nightly “menu.”

There have been lists of Christmas cookies;  one massive list of everything we ate on a ten day cruise;  other lists of what we ate on vacations or at various buffets; even a list of all my holiday baking ingredients that I keep on the chalkboard in our kitchen at home.  These lists fill me with a sense of order and organization.  At times, they end up feeling like some sort of wretched excess, leaving me wishing I had never compiled them in the first place.  Ultimately, though, the Virgo in me craves the construction of these archives.  They are a record of my knowledge that I can refer back to when thinking about what to cook or bake or eat or order in the future.