Thursday, May 13, 2010

When a Meal Tastes the Best

I've never been a big eater.  Stomach problems have plagued me all my life.  This isn't to say that I don't appreciate a good dish but I can never eat much before my gut warns me away from taking another bite. 

When I was a child my parents took me to doctors who told them they couldn't find the cause.  That I would have to pay close attention to how much I ate.  Don't force the kid, doctors told them.  He simply won't be able to keep it down.

There is alot of really tasty food out there.  And they bring it to you on steaming plates filled with heaping goodness.  Flavors that stand alone and others that blend into complex delites for the palate to savor.  Amazing what a good cook can accomplish with some basic ingredients.  Take someone with training or a real passion for the kitchen and the plates brought before you almost seem like a sinful luxury.

I come from a family of cooks.  Two aunts on my dad's side were professional bakers back in their day.  We would go to our second home, Chicago's deep south side, knowing what was in store for us.  The big treat for the year was Slava. 

Slava is the Serbian celebration of God's blessing upon a household.  The partiarch would invite every person he knew to come and eat in his house.  Preparation would last for days.  The women of the family would come early just to begin the process.  The aromas drifting in the steam of the open windows of that south side house were rich and inviting.  Everything from the special breads to the lamb.  They used both kitchens in that house just to keep up.

The first day would begin thus; the priest would come to bless the family and pray over it.  He would bless the bread (phonetically known as Poga-tche) and share the first wine with the head of the household.  He would bless the children and sit to the first meal.  It was a momentous occasion.  As soon as the first group of men left the table the women cleared it and the second group of men took their places. And so it went.  As long as there were guests, the dining room table fairly creaked with the weight of the bounty shared upon it.

I ate what I could when I could.  Often fighting a raging gut.  But how could you pass up what you saw and smelled?  I paid for it.  Oh, I paid for it dearly sometimes.  Between my mother and my aunts Anna and Maria some of the potential overdoings were abated.  Try everything, they would say, but only a little at a time.

Those days are long gone.  Traditions faded.  Mom has passed on and the aunts are in poor health. The German cooking of my Milwaukee upbringing is also drifting into memory.  But one tradition remains.  Because although it is never quite the same, the experience is equalled each time it happens.

Since the first times my friends and I headed out into the countryside we've always been drawn by the smells emanating from family owned restaurants.  It didn't matter that we were riding two strokes in those days.  It didn't seem to follow the wind patterns.  Someone in the group would catch the succulent aroma of something cooking and get everyone's attention.  The ride would become a quest to find that source.

When you've spent the better part of the day on the road, even a guy like me will be haunted by lure of a true family owned roadhouse.

For some reason these places have always reminded me of family gatherings.  People are most happy when they anticipate sitting down to what their noses told them would be found here.  We all look forward to it.

For me, the memories and the anticipation guided by what my senses tell me, draw me here.  Even if "here" is a place I've never been before.

The simplest foods from a family owned roadhouse just taste so good when you're riding.  Even the coffee seems better.

I can almost smell a family restaurant my bike led me to last summer..

I gotta find that place again.