by mia hinkle
What is the best meal you’ve ever had? THAT is a hard question. Throughout my 68 years I have probably eaten over 75,000 meals. I love all kinds of food, so I probably loved most of them. There are, however, a few culinary memories that stand out.
When I was little and we lived on the farm, our folks liked to have parties. Friends and family, lots of people, music, laughter, and good food. On warm summer evenings, the party would often include smoked sunfish. Preparations were a family affair. In the days leading up to the gathering, our Grandpa Tody would take my brothers, Hans and Dickie, fishing for sunnies from a wooden boat on Lobster Lake in Douglas County. On the day of the gathering, before the guests would arrive, my mom would hand me a feed sack filled with freshly picked corn-on-the-cob and guide us outside to pull the husks and silk off. It was a big job for a little kid with little fingers. Meanwhile my dad would drag out the 55-gallon drum (probably an empty DDT drum; he was a crop duster) and set it near the swing set in the shade. He would place dry corn cobs on a custom-made grate, set them on fire, spray a little water on them, and once they began to smoke lower them deep into the barrel. There were a blue million sunfish, scales off, skin on, which were then lowered on an identical grate into the barrel. He then covered the barrel and left the little fishes there to smoke. When we finally were allowed to “come and get it,” each mouthful melded into the perfect blend of summertime flavors. Corn-on-the-cob with melted butter and salt. Potato Salad made with boiled new potatoes from my mom’s garden. Home grown cucumbers and onion in a sweet vinegar dressing (still a standard in my kitchen). And a bunch of little smoked sunfish with crispy skin. Each bite better than the last. We kids sat cross legged in the grass giving no care to wiping our chins between bites. Fireflies flickered around us bringing the “show” portion of “dinner and a show.” Just one of those magical childhood memories.
Another culinary memory involves the Opryland Hotel, Caesar Salad, and Bananas Foster. This experience is very different than smoked sunfish in the grass. I was 27 and had just fallen for the love of my life that summer. We were in Nashville staying at the Opryland Hotel and the Country Music Awards were happening all around us. Everything was new for me that fall. I was in love for the first time, I was weeks from finishing up my accounting degree in Minneapolis, Karl was in a band who had recently signed a recording contract with Warner Brothers and had a song on Billboard’s Top 40. They had been traveling to lots of upscale places, but that week they were playing at the Opryland Hotel, perhaps the most opulent place I had ever laid eyes on (excluding Europe). It was a hope-filled and exciting chapter of our lives. We just KNEW that it would be The Wright Brothers who would next year be accepting a CMA award! It didn’t turn out that way. Anyway, we made reservations at the Old Hickory Room which was the fanciest restaurant in the Hotel. Karl and I ordered Caesar Salad for two and we watched in amazement as it was created at our tableside. It was 1981 and I guess Caesar dressing in a bottle had not been invented yet. So it began: a dark wooden cart loaded with all the ingredients sidled up to our table. The chef began to assemble the ingredients in a large wooden bowl beginning with smashing anchovies and garlic cloves into a paste, spooning in Dijon mustard, a sprinkle of fresh ground pepper, a couple of splashes of Worcestershire Sauce, two raw egg yolks, the juice of a lime, and a generous handful of grated Parmesan Cheese. He smashed it all together with a teak fried spatula, then slowly drizzled in extra virgin olive oil while continuing to mix the dressing. I remember how good it smelled. I had never seen anything like it; it was like he was working a magic trick right in front of us using the most unlikely of elements to create something wondrous. Romaine leaves left whole, washed and dried thoroughly, were added to the large wooden bowl where they were gingerly and completely coated with the fragrant dressing. Toss in a few large croutons and voilà! Caesar Salad! How could the lowly romaine leaf be so delicious that I can still recall it 4 decades later? I don’t remember which expensive steak I had, but when it came time for dessert, we ordered Bananas Foster and it came to our table ON FIRE! What an amazing meal! What an amazing weekend! What an amazing beginning to our life together. I cried like a baby when it came time to board my flight for home.
As lovely as that Opryland Hotel meal was, no gourmet meal has ever tasted as scrumptious as freeze-dried Chicken Noodle Casserole and Peach Cobbler over a campfire at the end of a long day paddling the sky blue waters in God’s country, i.e. the Boundary Waters Canoe Area at the border of Minnesota and Canada. What is it about eating outdoors that heightens the senses of taste and smell? Evolutionarily, we’re programmed to relax in nature. The landscape elicits a soft focus from us to calm our nervous system down after being in a fight-or-flight scenario (i.e., paddling for your life against the wind and lugging a canoe on your shoulders across long slippery portages.) When we are relaxed, our parasympathetic system, known as the “rest-and-digest” branch, kicks in. I was 25 years old when I took my first trip to the BWCA on a paddling, portaging, and hiking trip. I went 3 summers in a row with some really good girlfriends. We put in at Camp Tuscarora at the end of the Gunflint Trail. At day’s end, we would locate a campsite, set up the tent, gather firewood, build a fire, boil water from the lake, and add it to freeze dried packets of God knows what. When it finished cooking, it magically looked and tasted better than the real deal! Evening meals in the BWCA were, I believe, tied to the concepts and the physicality of sacrifice and reward. We had worked hard all day and were rewarded with a delicious meal. Everything tasted soo good.
As I wrap this up, it occurs to me that the one element tying these three experiences together are the people involved in each. Smoked sunfish with my family of origin. Caesar Salad with my soon-to-be husband and my newly created family. And freeze-dried food with good friends. People I love wove a slender silver thread through these memories and put a bow around some of the best meals I’ve ever had.