The affair began with an e-mail invitation.
“Special offer this week just for you. Full Rack of Ribs for just $15.95. Make a reservation.”
There was nothing special about the invitation. Firebirds Wood Fire Grill sends similar emails each week, hoping I will bite.
I rarely eat ribs. The closest emotional connection I had to ribs was a great-uncle whom they called “Red” because of his cinnamon skin and brick-colored hair. Because of the southern lilt my ancestors brought from Woodbine, Georgia and burnished it with the Philadelphia twang they picked up in the north, “Red” sounded like “Ribs.” I called him Uncle Ribs until he died.
Three days after receiving the email, I found myself staring down a Moby Dick sized plate of Baby Back ribs, steak fries, and sautéed spinach with baby tomatoes and cheese.
“Can I bring you anything else?” the waitress asked.
“An extra stomach?” I joked.
The waitress smiled and walked away. It was just me and this ginormous plate of meat, starch, and vegetables.
I approached the ribs, shyly and sweetly at first.
I ignored the damp towels the waitress laid on the table and primly dug in with a steak knife. I gently carved away flesh from bone. The sauce spattered my fingers, making it difficult for me to turn the pages of the James Michener book I brought for company.
Eating without a prop, which served as my emotional and social armor, presented a problem. I love to eat alone at restaurants. It allows me to be in the world without being part of it. Armed with a book or my iPad, I am free to observe the world around me without getting caught in a web of conversation with an out-of-town businessman or chatty extrovert who can’t stand the singleness of solitude.
I like people. I just don’t want to be near them and ruin the illusion of our basic, human goodness.
For example, without the protection of a book or iPad, I’d have to acknowledge the persistent thumping of a child’s foot on the seat behind me, and risk smacking the kid upside the head. I couldn’t ignore the twenty-something young woman at the table next to me bragging to her friend about how many likes she received on Facebook for a video of her boyfriend tickling their dog.
The ribs didn’t care about my social and emotional phobias. They had other, better plans for me.
The First Bite
From the first bite, the ribs commanded complete concentration. They demanded more of me than a half-assed commitment to finishing a meal without spilling any barbecue sauce on my new shirt. The ribs implored me to give in to my hunger wholeheartedly without shame or hesitation.
I put the knife down and rolled up my sleeves. Using my entire hands, I ripped the ribs apart, sunk my teeth in, and let the barbecue sauce seep from the sides of my mouth. I sucked the sauce from my fingers and made small, approving noises.
I worried the other diners would find my rib lust odd. Flashes of the Olympia Dukakis line in the movie, When Harry Met Sally, “I’ll have what she’s having,” after Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in the restaurant with Billy Crystal sobered me. But then I looked around the restaurant and realized no one was paying attention to me.
I dug in and ate until I was full.
Like a fat, satisfied lioness, I surveyed the terrain. A pile of bones, two towels, and a slight stain on my shirt served as souvenirs of this dirty, hot, rib affair. I no longer cared about the shirt. I picked my teeth with my pinky nail in public. Doris, my maternal grandmother who taught etiquette classes in my grandparents’ finished basement, would have been appalled.
“Would you like a box for leftovers?” the waitress asked.
Enflaming Strange Passions
Barbecue ribs enflame strange passions in people. A woman in Austin, Texas was arrested and charged with aggravated assault for nearly stabbing her brother because he attempted to steal a barbecue rib from her. A few months earlier, police responded to a similar incident involving the same woman, a family member, and a plate of ribs.
Two important lessons from this incident: 1) Once bitten, twice stabbed. 2) Never come between a woman and her barbecue ribs.
As for me, this all-too-brief interlude with a rack of ribs allowed me to drop my social defenses and enjoy food in the present moment. I stopped the runaway train of complaints, concerns, and contradictions in my head for just a short while to break bread.
This was more than mindful eating. In the moment of sauce and meat and bone, I discovered my inner animal and I let her eat.
How to Savor
Savoring is a lost art. We watch what we eat, but we don’t savor what we eat. Savoring is not “mindful eating,” which is about controlling one’s eating habits and curbing emotional and binge eating. It is a richer, experience that can transform noshing into nourishing. Here are the three ingredients to making any meal a special one:
Texture – Notice the texture. What does it feel like against your lips? Is it hard, soft, lumpy or crunchy? Once you notice the texture, what feelings (if any) does it provoke? There is a difference, for example, in a spicy food that makes you reach for a pitcher of water and a food that warms your belly and fills it with an incandescent glow.
Taste – Taste is personal. One person’s delicious is another person’s dreadful. That’s because taste, along with smell, and nerve endings that register texture, pain, and temperature, determine a food’s flavor. Our taste buds are responsible for the perception of taste, which is divided into five categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. What we’re looking for in this experience is how the taste combinations in the food twerk together on the tongue. How does the cardamom, for example, with its hints of lemon, smoke and mint, elevate a curry dish? Does fresh, cracked, black pepper awaken a Caesar salad?
Time – Savoring takes time. This doesn’t mean you can only savor a five-course meal at an expensive restaurant. You can savor Chicken McNuggets if you like them and take the time to appreciate them. Take the time to invite your body and its senses to the meal. Feel your breath rise and fall in your chest. Notice the sights and smells around you and on the plate. Chew slowly and notice the sensation of swallowing. Be grateful for this human experience and celebrate it.