This month's Inviting Writing challenge was to tell us about the most memorable meal of your life. We got a wide range of entries—stay tuned each Monday for a new one—and Erika Janik starts us off with a story about the best and worst of meals.
Janik is a Madison-based freelance writer, author, and a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio. Her web site is erikajanik.net and she writes a blog called "Curious About Everything."
Fed by Thugs
By Erika Janik
My most memorable meal came from a deep and abiding lack of good food. I was in London, in Europe for the first time, as a 20-year-old taking a course on British politics for a month. We spent three weeks in a cheap hotel near Kensington Palace, eating breakfast every morning and dinner every night in the subterranean hotel restaurant known as the Zebra Club.
Every morning we descended into the basement to the sounds of techno and roving colored lights on the dance floor. The Zebra Club clearly took its “club” designation seriously, morning or night, though I never saw anyone dancing. Breakfast was cold toast, served angrily by a man who doubled as the front desk attendant by night. Coming off an all-night shift, he finished his day at 8 a.m. by shoving cheap slices of store-bought bread onto one of those toaster conveyor belts common to cafeterias. He glared at me, daring me take a slice that he had slammed down. Often, he missed the plate and the errant toast would skitter across the crumb-covered tablecloth and onto the floor.
Other breakfast options included stale wheat flakes, worse than the store brand my roommates and I bought to save money back home, and stewed prunes that only old people in children’s stories seemed to love. There was also a pitcher of warm whole milk that tasted incredibly thick and strange to someone who’d had only two percent or skim milk before. We washed all of this down with weak coffee and pitchers of orange-colored but orange-flavor-less juice.
Breakfast was also when we selected which of the two dinner options we wanted. Everything, meat or pasta (and those were the two options all three weeks), came covered in a viscous, metallic-tasting sauce that was either pale red or highlighter yellow. Potatoes, carrots, everything tasted like I imagined the metal filings at the hardware store would taste. Failure to clean your plate—and I failed most nights—often resulted in a menacing visit from the tattooed Eastern European chef who came to my side with a chef’s knife in each hand and a maniacal grin. I’m sure he thought he was being funny, but his thick accent, torn shirt, and inked pictures of knives, blood, and pirates covering his arms somehow failed to make me laugh. Instead, I kept a careful watch on the kitchen doors, feeling nauseous each time they even so much as fluttered. I think I lost ten pounds.
So it was with extreme relief that I checked out of my room for our class road trip through several English towns for the final week of class. Our first stop was Stratford-upon-Avon, where we stayed in a half-timbered hotel straight out of a storybook. We trooped down to the hotel restaurant for dinner and were greeted with platters of food served family-style: plates of potatoes, broccoli, carrots, lamb, beef, bread, and fruit.
Nervously, I placed a single brown potato on my plate to start. I cut it open and took a tentative bite. Three weeks of the Zebra Club had made me fearful of food; I never thought that would happen. The first bite was amazing. It was the most delicious potato I had ever eaten simply because it tasted of nothing but potato. A tear ran down my cheek before I could wipe it away. I looked anxiously around to see if anyone had noticed. I felt ridiculous at my joy over something so simple, but extreme hunger for something familiar and pure can do that to a person. I had no trouble cleaning my plate several times over that night. My unintentional diet was over. And eleven years on, that meal remains one of the most memorable of my life.