Cafe Society

Sheehan: A Few of My Favorite Things

I had to have some half-unexpected dental work done a couple of days ago. It was nothing terribly serious but it was serious enough, if you know what I mean. Lot of blood, stitches. An annoyance. And as I was getting finished off in the chair, my dentist (a miracle worker, and a nice guy to boot) sat down to give me The Talk.

No smoking, he told me. No hot beverages. No carbonated drinks, no beer and no hard liquor. No pointy food (tortilla chips and the like), no chewy food (candy) and, just to be on the safe side, no solid food at all lest I pop my stitches and end up back in the chair with some kind of nasty bone infection that would necessitate the removal of my jaw.

"Just take it easy," he said and, considering what I do for a living, he told me that if I really ought to consider taking a few days off.

Unfortunately, I can't take a few days off. Both because I have deadlines to hit and because, frankly, I wouldn't know what to do with myself. I told him this, around a mouthful of bloody gauze, and he just shook his head, reminded me about the warnings (a doctor's order, essentially, to not do any of the things that I do every day to make life worth living), and said I could go. "Good luck," he told me. "And if anything goes wrong, just call me."

Lucky for me, it's been a few days now and, as yet, nothing tooth-wise has gone wrong. But mentally? I've been a wreck. I am one of those people who can't stand being told what not to do, what I can't do, what I really shouldn't do if I know what's good for me. And while I've survived the temporary ban on hot beverages, the prohibition of beer and hard liquor, the warnings against soda, nachos and candy, and have even followed the (partial) proscription against cigarettes (I've had a few over the past three days, just enough to keep me sane), what's really driven me crazy has been the food. From the minute I felt the first bite of the needle, the first tug of the sterile gut against my gums, I have been craving like a junkie, planning and plotting my first meal like death row in reverse--what will I have when I am once again healed rather than a hundred steps from dead.

And because it is, essentially, all I can think about, I figured I'd share a little of my longing with you. Who knows, maybe it'll help.

The very first thing I wanted as soon as I was told I couldn't have anything? Another order of corned beef hash from Mona's on Broadway, the last restaurant I ate in before going into the chair. I had a big plate of the hash, eggs over easy, bleeding yellow yolk over the deep fried potatoes, and a pot of tea. Immediately after leaving, I made for the rooftop patio at Moon Time for beers and cigarettes in the sun. More than anything, I want a repeat of that right now. Instead, I woke up this morning, had two glasses of cold water, some yogurt and a little potato salad mashed into a vinegar-sour slurry. That sucked.

Actually, what I want more than anything right now is a steak. A big, bloody, bone-in T-bone from Elway's or the Capital Grille, served with roasted potatoes, creamed spinach, a lobster tail with a side of drawn butter, a gigantic slice of chocolate cake and two double Bushmills on the rocks. You know how, when you've got something on your mind, all of a sudden you start seeing things everywhere that remind you of that something? Well, everywhere I've looked in the past couple of days, I've seen steaks. Commercials on TV, people talking about steaks, folks eating steaks in front of me. In the magazines I get, there's this new ad campaign for beef that shows a steak in extreme close-up, making it look like a rugged landscape dotted with parsley-sprig bushes and peppercorn stones. I dreamt about that ad campaign last night, imagining that I was living on a planet made of steak and rolling myself down bloody gullies of meat. But on the entire list of steakhouse dishes I crave right now, the only thing I can eat is the creamed spinach. And seriously, who's gonna eat a big bowl of creamed spinach without a steak to go with it? That's just ridiculous.

I want a hot dog. Now. Laura had a hot dog for dinner last night and I wanted to steal the bites right out of her mouth. I stared at her while she was eating until she got so creeped out that she had to leave the room. Meanwhile, my dinner was a bowl of roasted red pepper and tomato soup, a bowl of shrimp ramen, more yogurt, more mushed potato salad, some chocolate pudding, a mug of lukewarm green tea and, when Laura wasn't looking, some mustard squirted directly into my mouth in lieu of the hot dog it should've gone on. I ate, essentially, everything in the house that was liquid or semi-solid, everything that I could get my hands on. So I know my cravings are not simple hunger. No, it's that pissed-off fourteen-year-old inside me who can't stomach being told not to do something, who will run out and immediately do whatever has been prohibited. I am stuffing myself with pudding and soup and mustard in order to keep that little fucker down, to keep him sated. But he is persistent.

A couple of years back, when Tyler Wiard was still cooking at the original Mel's on Fillmore, I stopped in for some drinks. I was exhausted, and not really hungry for anything. But Mel Master was there, and he insisted that I eat something. When I told him there was nothing on the menu I wanted, he asked me what I might want that wasn't on the menu.

"Salmon," I told him. "Just a little piece of salmon in a real beurre blanc with lemon. Some mashed potatoes. A few mushrooms. I want what I used to eat when I was cooking, man. When I couldn't imagine ever looking at another bite of food again."

Mel went back and had a word with Tyler. And a few minutes later, Tyler brought out a perfect piece of salmon filet, poached, touched with a delicate, lemon-shot beurre blanc, leaning against a small mound of whipped potatoes dotted with chives, and a side plate of chanterelle mushrooms with nothing -- just the 'shrooms, cooked down in butter and a dash of salt until they were as soft as slices of marshmallow, then served with a beurre noisette. It was one of the simplest and most beautiful dinners ever presented to me at table, exactly what I wanted and needed just then.

Exactly what I want and need right now. The memory of it is so powerful I can almost taste the melting sweetness of the fish, smell the woody brownness of the chanterelles.

I would walk a mile for a cheeseburger right now if, in walking a mile, I could be guaranteed that eating my victory burger wouldn't pop my stitches and land me in the ER, my face packed with clove-soaked cotton. Jesus, I'd even run a mile. And I haven't run a mile for anything in a really fucking long time.

Sweet potato fries from Neighborhood Flix. Regular fries with hot Chinese mustard from Encore next door. Anything--absolutely anything--off the dim sum menu at Super Star Asian (but the dumplings in particular--a hundred of them, right now). Aloo chana chaat. Sushi. God, I would murder a plate of sushi right now. Sensual Roll from Osaka. Maguro sashimi from Katsuya. A gigantic cinnamon roll and a hot cup of coffee from Johnson's Corner three years ago, pre-smoking ban, so that I could chain-smoke a half a pack of cigarettes, too, and then duck out into the parking lot to have a pull from my flask. A mouthful of homemade caramel from the candy store in Georgetown. More corned beef hash...

I could go on, but I won't. I'm seriously depressed right now, sitting here, tonguing the stiff hyphens of the stitches perforating my gums (something else I was told I wasn't supposed to do but can't not), thinking about what's left in the house that I haven't eaten, what's soft, what's comforting to my battered pie hole. Comfort food? Fuck it. What I want is angry food, bitter and hard and irritated food. I've had enough of coddling, enough of comfort. I want some chips and salsa like you wouldn't believe--pointy, sharp and dangerous. I want a breakfast burrito full of bacon and barbed wire. Chuletas from El Noa Noa with broken glass crudo. I'm pissed and I'm thinking, how long can this go on? How long before that angry kid inside me finally gets his way and turns my hand towards a cheeseburger and the whiskey bottle?

Not long, I think. I'm gonna go see if I can find some more pudding. -- Jason Sheehan

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