Food for the Heart
Author Laura Fraser shares her essay on heartbreak and recovery and the meal that helped. Winner of the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Bert Greene Award in the Essay division. Athome, I keep a framed photo of myself clinking wineglasses with a friend at dinner. It's not flattering: I look wan and wornout, with red-rimmed eyes, cheeks flushed. But the expression the camera caught is one of pure contentment. The photo was takenat Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, on May 8, 1997. I remember the date because on May 7, my husband left me. Up until dinner, May 8was perhaps the worst day of my life. I spent most of it in bed, trying to grasp my new reality, that the man I loved andmarried and planned to have children with had left me, abruptly, for someone else. I'd been lied to, cheated on, abandoned-andI had a dinner reservation that evening at the restaurant that made Alice Waters famous for her fresh-from-the-farm approach tocooking. Ironically, the dinner with my longtime friend Larry was payment for a bet I lost about which of us would get marriedfirst. We'd made the wager years before, when I thought I was too free-spirited to settle down, before I met the man whochanged my mind. After I wed, Larry got married, too, and each of our lives got busier. Finally, our schedules coincided with aday we could get a reservation. That it turned out to be the day after my husband left me made me laugh at the universe inspite of my sadness. When I told Larry the news, he asked if I wanted to cancel dinner. But I needed a reason to get out ofbed, and that day, dinner at my favorite restaurant was the only one that would work. I might cry through every course, but Iwas going. I met Larry at the entryway to the dark-wood Arts & Crafts building, greeted by a spray of wildflowers and a largebowl of seasonal fruit. We were seated in a cozy corner, with a view of the kitchen and its copper pots. We started with aglass of champagne and a plate of Hog Island oysters on the half shell with little sausages. The oysters were so fresh theytasted like my tears. I closed my eyes to feel the sensation of the sea. Larry chatted about wine with the server, chosesomething French, and started telling me about novels he'd enjoyed recently. He knew better than to ask how I was feeling.After the oysters came a fish and shellfish soup, with a delicate broth of fennel and leeks. The flavors were so subtle andperfectly balanced that my mind had to close off everything else and rest on my taste buds. There was no room in myconsciousness for heartbreak, divorce and having to move out of my house, only space for a soup whose flavors shimmered likegold. The server poured a dark-hued Bandol wine, ripe and inviting. The flavors spread across my mouth into a smile. The maincourse arrived, an earthy grilled duck breast with rhubarb sauce and roasted turnips. The rhubarb brought me back to mychildhood, when I would pick the bitter stalks from my grandmother's garden and we would make my favorite pink stew. Mygrandmother is gone, but rhubarb is as permanent as my memories of her. The rhubarb duck comforted me with its familiarity; nomatter what happens, in spring there is always rhubarb. When dessert came, a berry feuilleté, perfect little fresh springberries in the lightest and flakiest of pastry, Larry uttered a French expression of delight. He said the meal made up for thetime, years before, when we'd gone bicycling on Thanksgiving when everything was closed and all we could find for dinner wasmango juice and pretzels. At that moment, the Chez Panisse meal was making up for so much more. The server snapped our photo aswe finished our wine. I would go back to my tears the next day, and it would be months before such a look of contentment wouldcross my face again. But at that moment, sharing a wonderful meal with a friend, the last pastry flake melting on my tonguelike snow, I was happy. And every time I looked at that photo during the dark times that followed, I knew I would be happyagain. -Laura Fraser is the author of the bestselling travel memoir The Italian Affair and Losing It, an exposé of the dietindustry.