An Ode to the Humble Foods That Saved Me
Some days, it’s not about the best steak or ramen. Here’s a tribute to the other end of the food spectrum.
This is a shoutout to the invisibles, the overlooked blind spots in our culinary memories. Humble as they are, I think these guys deserve some recognition too. So here, without irony, is a love letter to the foods that sustained me when I needed it most.
The Ham Sandwich
If it was there, it would be a good day. It was my first year of college, and on weekends and holidays, when everything was closed and my only company was the campus trees, I lived on vending machines. One was in a stone-walled pavilion next to a single-setting microwave—the only source of sustenance between my dorm room and the library.
The ham sandwich, plastic-wrapped so tightly that the wedges of the triangle were rounded nubs, was unadorned by any sort of branding. Enriched wheat bread, a thin patina of mayo, ham, cheese and alfalfa sprouts. I could walk a bit farther and find something better. But as the light grew low and the birds settled into the trees, the air manic with needling chirps, this was good. I’d scarf the sandwich, drink a Pepsi and head back to the dorm, homesick as hell.
My first off-campus job was as an intern in Chinatown. From my apartment at the very top of Ward Avenue, I’d walk down to Beretania and buy breakfast at the corner gas station. The basket of boiled eggs sat out on the counter. I could have gotten a carton of eggs, boiled them at home and gotten a better deal. But when you get around on foot most of the time, it’s a grab-and-go lifestyle. So I’d buy a boiled egg and a can of iced coffee, use the edge of the can to crack the egg and peel it over a garbage can. Two little packets of salt and pepper, torn simultaneously, was all it needed. Then I got on The Bus to Chinatown, designing ads for sales folks who often smelled like the places they had just feasted at.
I was always hungry those days. For lunch, I headed over to River Street, which was full of mahjong players and troubled folks. Once, as two men argued over a bicycle, one said, “Fine, you have it,” and threw it into the river. Anyway, Royal Kitchen sold really cheap manapua. The vegetarian one had carrots, peas and baby corn. The golden baked bun was always as soft as a dinner roll, not like other places’ steamed white buns. One bun and another canned cold coffee. And then it was back to work.
For a stretch, I did pau hana at a friend’s house, drinking beers and cocktails in the yard and watching the moon rise over the mountain above us, silhouetting the trees as it rose. I’d bring a six-pack and for another couple bucks, a Ziploc bag of boiled peanuts. This was so I could use my debit card—it was cash only for anything under $10. We’d sit around and talk about the news, what restaurants my friends had eaten at and what we would be eating. Dinner with these guys was always at 10.
I had just gotten out of a relationship, so you know how it goes. There’s a tinge of wistfulness at the edges of whatever you eat and drink. The boiled peanuts, they became a staple of these sessions, plump and full of salty water with a hint of star anise. I would see these friends on a recent trip to New York and feel like we came full circle. But I missed the boiled peanuts.
Back to the Eggs
I was reminded of the power of the humblest foods on my second day in New York. After a swirl of booze, I was saddled with a trifecta of hangover, jetlag and a cold. I felt as if a lawnmower was roaring down my throat. I stayed in bed, burning a full vacation day recovering in darkness. Hunger pangs came at 10:30 p.m. The same friend offered to bring by some soup, but I declined. So she sent an article on how to beat a cold in a day. Step one: Eat an egg.
In the fridge, left by the previous guests, was a carton with two eggs. I boiled one up, added some salt, ate it over the sink and felt my strength return. We’d go on to eat some really amazing food—Michelin-star ramen, the best lengua taco you can buy in a bodega and an award-winning tasting menu. But it was the egg that brought me back to life.