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Joni Woolf: The best meal I ever had

A couple of weeks ago this column featured some of the feast-worthy foods that came from the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and were the subject of a feast prepared for the “harvest hands” (often called “field hands”). Called a “harvest hand orgy,” the celebration marked the end of the season with all the good foods one prepared for such a feast. That kind of meal is memorable, like the Thanksgiving feast that some of us prepare. We talk about it with friends and family, and compare recipes, sharing opinions about what works and what, sometimes, does not.

This week marks the beginning of my fifth year of writing a weekly food column for the Americus Times-Recorder. It has been an adventure, on my part, and I hope an occasional source of cooking inspiration for readers. Reviewing the record of foods written about, and occasions marked with feasts for friends and family, I asked myself (at 3 o’clock in the morning): what was the best meal you ever had? I thought about all the life passages, from baptisms to weddings to birthdays to funerals — all significant times when we gather over food to comfort or celebrate. But the best meal was not one of those occasions. As I recalled life events where food had been central, it was not one of the feasts — where food almost rolled off the tables — that I remembered with clarity, with joy, with thanksgiving. Rather, it was a day spent on a mountain trail in North Carolina where I had the best meal I would ever recall.

My husband and I were on a day hike, going to the top of Standing Indian Mountain, part of the Appalachian Trail near Franklin, North Carolina. He was a seasoned hiker; I hiked rarely. He was also a slow hiker, enjoying the scenery along the way: for him, the journey was everything. He was a good walking companion, and put up with my occasional complaining about how far we had to go. It is a hike of several hours, and we stopped along for water breaks. He prepared everything for the hike, including what we would eat. I had thought we might get back to town to some nice restaurant, but that was not in his plan. Yet when I got hungry, and tired and cross, he suggested we stop, and he prepared lunch. He pulled from his backpack a can of Chicken of the Sea tuna fish, in oil; cheese slices; an apple that he cut into large chunks, and a packet of saltine crackers. He opened the can of tuna fish, and handed me a stainless-steel spoon that was part of his pack. I spread oily tuna fish on top of a cracker and took a big bite. It was delicious. Then I enjoyed a cheese slice on top of an apple chunk, and then I repeated the process. In between bites, I had large swallows of cool water. Then for dessert, I had half an orange that he had not only peeled; he had removed those dangly little strings of white membrane. I was in heaven. We sat there a good while, enjoying the food, the scenery, and each other’s company. We hiked on to the top of the mountain, rested, then came back down. Those memories are dimmer. But the memory of that meal has stayed with me 20-something years. It is a meal I will never forget.

Four hundred years ago, the English poet and priest John Donne wrote “… for love, all love of other sights controls, and makes one little room an everywhere.” If we are fortunate, we realize as we grow older that joy is found in the small things, the seemingly forgettable events of our everyday life. But every now and then, we find that it is the very “everyday-ness” that makes our time here memorable — when we recall those singular moments when time slowed and we found joy in the simplest of pleasures — even of a can of tuna fish packed in oil.

Though it will reach 100 degrees this weekend, we believe with all our hearts that fall is coming. September is already upon us, and that means pumpkins will be arriving at the markets soon. Next week, we’ll feature some pumpkin recipes that are relatively easy and always good. Our local markets will have plenty of this great fall beauty, so shop locally, and share a recipe — or a loaf of pumpkin bread — with a friend. Food is always better shared. I learned this over a can of tuna fish.

 

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net