Food always brings me back.
If I’m having a slice from Grey Block Pizza, I remember the first time I ate there, back when it was Abbot’s. I was taking accounting at SMC, right across the street, and I’d leave work early enough so I could park, take the shuttle, then cross campus to get two slices of Wild Mushroom for dinner. I’d bring along a copy of Fantasy & Science Fiction, because that was the year I had decided that I was going to be a writer. Being a writer meant studying the markets, and that was the market I wanted to crack. I’d eat my pizza, read stories, and realize that I so did not want to learn accountancy, not when I could be writing, dammit. That was eleven years ago. I’ve only got the one sale, but I’ve got two novels in the can, one ready to get sent out on the Agent Dance Circuit. There’s a new one I’m working on. All of this started in that grungy place, with two slices on white paper plates. I have some Wild Mushroom, and I’m back there.
Thai food brings me way back, to late nights at Harvey Mudd, when we’d pile into someone’s car for a trip to Sanamluang. Thai food was exotic and sophisticated and exciting, even though it was in a run-down restaurant in a run-down strip mall in a run-down city. I can still taste the ka nom pa kard, a dish that only Sammy’s makes. You shred daikon, make a thick paste out of it, then you fry slices of the paste with cilantro, bean sprouts, and brown sauce. When I went back to Mudd for the fifteenth reunion, I had a plate, and it was heaven. I remembered going to Sanamluang after gigs with the band I played drums for. I remembered the relief at having a real meal after I’d gotten horribly sick my sophomore year. I remember falling in love, and I certainly remember having it all blow up in my face.
I taste Carb-Boom gels and Accelerade, and I’m racing. I Ragin’ Cajun, and I’m back at Realtime. It’s always the cheap food, the everyday food, the stuff I’d have out of habit that ties me to somewhen. I can remember fancy meals, but I can’t recreate them. I can have a strawberry donut, and I can remember all kinds of things.
I had a crap race today. It was hot, and I’m out of shape, and I just couldn’t hack it. I stopped. I walked. I would have been better off staying home. But I drove out to Chino, came in last place, and I decided I wanted a burrito from El Pavo in Montclair. It was a bit out of the way from Mudd, but there was something about the place that stuck with me. I think it was the way the women behind the counter would put the tortillas into a steamer with a giant lever on its side. One of them would slam the lid, lean on the lever, and the tortilla would be flash-steamed–light and fluffy and sticky and, oh. It was comfort. I needed some comfort, even if it was out of the way.
El Pavo, I found, after winding my way through Chino and Ontario, past one taqueria after another, is now closed. Somewhere in the last fifteen years, it had turned into Alberto’s; the shadow of the old sign was still on the boarded-up storefront. I didn’t bother to get out of the car. I didn’t want to see if any of the old equipment was still in the kitchen, if there was an old menu floating around. It had been turned into a shell a long time ago.
Sometimes, you just want lunch. Sometimes, you want to remember comfort. Sometimes, you want both.