I can count on one hand the times I have cleaned my plate in front of a boy and thought nothing of it.
On the cusp of puberty, my best friend and I had somehow gleaned from pop culture, or other women, or god-knows-where, that it was horrifically unbecoming, unladylike as Southern women like to say, to be hungry or to eat at all in the presence of the opposite sex. The more low brow the food—pulled pork, Sloppy Joes, greasy pizza—the greater the offense.
To put this into perspective, I once saw her eat a piece of candy she found on the floor of our middle school—yes, found, not dropped—but between the ages of 14 and 26, I cannot recall a single situation when I saw her eat an entire meal in front of a man and she could probably say the same about me.
Because we went to an all girls school, we didn’t get much practice eating in front of boys and it never became a necessity. We told ourselves that we weren't hungry until it became true; skipped meals became the standard, so that meals eaten invited the loaded comment: I can’t believe you’re eating that.
It was no surprise that when I woke up in the middle of the night—still painfully and exquisitely full from a meal at which I had eaten everything down the the last grain of farro smushed between the prongs of my fork so that I would not have to lick my plate—I had a very bad case of the could have, would have, should haves.
What had I missed out on eating during the decade or so that I spent skipping dinner, picking the cheese off of pizza, the chocolate out of cookies, and believing that the worst, most offensive "f" word was fried?
My mind wandered to one specific incident and it played on a loop behind my forehead. The very first time a boy offered to cook for me he asked, “Can I make you breakfast for dinner? Fried eggs on toast?” And I, horrified that he had dropped the “f word” in my presence, would say no. No, no, no, no, no. No to butter. No to fried. No to eggs. No to his generosity. No to an olive branch, a potential turning point in my perception of myself.
And that is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best meal I never ate. Sure, I can make myself fried eggs on toast, but if you’ve ever tried to make one of your grandma’s recipes using all the same ingredients down to the brand, following her instructions to a T, and your food still didn’t taste like hers, you know what I mean.
There is a phenomenon the world over that the person cooking is able to make food taste a certain way—be it by conscious intention or magic or their hair and skin particles falling into it, nobody knows—and no other person anywhere, at any point in time, can replicate that flavor. No fried egg on toast will ever taste as good as that one would have, could have, should have.
Though what might have been was definitely nothing technically exquisite—probably a plain ol' grocery store egg on Wonderbread—I like to embellish my faux memory.
I tell myself that it was a perfectly fried egg, crispy on the edges and runny in the center, perched gently on locally made, buttered whole grain toast, topped with shiitake oil, and salt—and that I am not afraid of the butter or the egg yolk or the oil, or the boy.
Makes 2 cups
10 ounces shiitake mushrooms
1 leek, cleaned and quartered
2 bay leaves
2 small cloves garlic, whole and peeled
1/3 ounce thyme sprigs
1 pinch kosher salt
2 cups grapeseed oil
Final photo by Hannah Messinger, third photo by Mark Weinberg, all others by James Ransom