MC (as in "emcee", not "mick") Slim JB

MC (as in "emcee", not "mick") Slim JB
Illustration by Natalie Dee

20 June 2015

The Last Waltz: Food Nerd Edition

Illustration courtesy of Sally Corp.
I recently attended a funeral for the mother of an old friend. Beyond the beauty of a simple wake marked by heartfelt, moving testimonials by her closest relatives and friends, I was impressed by the meal the family hosted afterwards for the mourners at a nearby restaurant. The food reflected this woman’s refined tastes and gregarious, sincere, native-New-Englander personality in an unpretentious yet celebratory way. I didn’t know her well, but well enough to think: “A great lobster roll: luxurious, but something you can eat while holding a glass of the kind of nice Chardonnay she favored. Unfussy yet deluxe. Perfect."

For better or worse, I’m the kind of food geek who can weep for my friends’ pain while admiring their thoughtfulness about a menu they somehow managed to plan amidst their sorrow. And I realized that I’ve been to many such memorials where the food was understandably an afterthought. Of course that doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things to most people: the bereft have far more profound, immediate concerns on their minds in that trying moment than damned passed hors d’oeuvres.

But I couldn’t help considering that ancient notion about food as communion, as standing for something deeper than mere sustenance at such moments. I watched the video collage of happy snapshots from a life well lived, heard the heartbreaking, loving words of the people closest to this woman, and thought that serving good food at that moment was pertinently true to her memory, a good cook whose good cooking was as much about nourishing the souls of the people she loved as their bodies.

It left me thinking about my own wake, what I’d want served to people mourning my absence. “Here lie the ashes of Slim, who spent an inordinate amount of his free time in life pursuing the pleasures of food and drink, and spilled a small sea of ink encouraging strangers to enjoy the work of the chefs and somms and bartenders who had thrilled him.” It’s natural for me to want that moment to feature an awe-inspiring, memorable repast, isn’t it?

Without being morbid – I’m planning to stick around for a few more decades if I can help it – I think that deserves some consideration, and pondering it, I’m quickly faced with a dilemma. Part of me wants that moment to promote the kind of food and drink I most loved myself: one more chance to evangelize the abstruse dishes and odd cocktails that made my jaded palate tingle in life. But is the memorial really about me? That last shared public moment: shouldn’t it be more about making the people you’ve left behind happy and comforted, especially when most of them aren’t obsessive food dorks? This is an old balancing act for food nerds – indeed, for nerds of any stripe – recognizing that the joys of your own infatuations aren’t often shared by laypeople, and so striving for a middle ground where they can enjoy the heat you bask in without getting singed (though in truth, bored is the likelier risk.)

I’ve idly considered my Final Playlist, songs the dead man wanted you to hear. That’s easier. The music I favored in life is more like old photos: full of ridiculous choices, pure idiosyncrasy, more forgivable for any strangeness and awfulness. But food and drink are different: you’re gone, they’re there, and they’re hungry and thirsty. Meanwhile, you’ll be missed, but maybe some of them are thinking, “Well, at least I’m never going to have to be talked into eating another weird tentacled or stinky fermented thing again.”

I have no idea just now what I want served at my wake, but I’m thinking about it, even if it’s a discomfiting reality. I suppose it’s something a grownup can and should see to, like their will or life insurance, best attended to well in advance of the necessity. Having just seen my friends manage to serve both the memory of their dear mom and the immediate needs of the people she left behind equally well, aptly, beautifully, I don’t want to let that detail of my own passing left to chance.

So what do I want served? Foie gras poutine? Great Coney Island dogs? Sublime sashimi? Chouriço pizza? Pig bones and tails in mostarda? Steamers a-go-go? Pork-and-crab soup dumplings all around? A couple of square meters of jamón ibêrico de bellota? Buffalo beef on weck? Vintage Brunello, Jet Pilots in crazy Tiki mugs, a keg of Guinness, all three? Is it really appropriate to torture the bereaved by insisting on a Fernet Flip toast? I feel I have to triangulate somewhere between the poles of humble comfort, extravagance, and the strange-but-good. I can’t manage how the people I loved remember my life as a whole, but with enough deliberation, maybe I can make them say: “That was a great fucking funeral. What a spread! What hooch!” I’m pretty sure that has to be more about what they love to eat and drink, not so much what I loved to eat and drink. I’ll be damned if I don’t get that one right.