Bolognese. Demi-glace. Poblana crema. Lardons. Pappardelle. Puttanesca. I guessed that airline chicken breast was not something that would be served at a cabin pressure of 8,000 feet and that tomato ragù was not the same non-descript red sauce I could find sitting in a glass jar on any supermarket shelf. My head was swimming, my heart was racing, and I could feel myself becoming dizzy as I scrolled through the bistro’s online menu. I ate there before, on more than one occasion, but by “before,” I mean… BEFORE… When I suggested to Amelia that she pick the restaurant because I was running out of ideas, I was without expectations. Quickly, I dialed Kelly, my nutritionist. “What should I do? Nothing is SAFE,” I lamented.
“Would it be all right to ask that you go to a different restaurant?” she inquired. That wasn’t the response I was anticipating from Kelly, who usually uses humor to cajole me into push my boundaries and shakes her head in mock dismay when I attempt to retreat into my cave of safety. I didn’t want to back down. Instead, I did what any right-minded, hyper-analytical, recovering orthorexic would do. I turned to Wikipedia.
It was a daunting task. Every menu option contained at least one if not five unknown (and therefore inherently dangerous, potentially lethal, might-just-cause-me-to-drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack-in-the-restaurant) elements. I started at the top. Fortunately, I discovered that I didn’t need to work my way through the entire list. All I needed was to unravel enough of the mystery that the menu didn’t scare me anymore. As I methodically searched term after term, my breath abated, my racing heart slowed, and the panic left me. “I just need to find one thing,” I muttered to myself. “Just one entre I would enjoy eating. Or tolerate.” Substitutions allowed.
Unfortunately, most cream sauces, cheese-based dishes, and any food in the noodle or pasta family remains in the might-just-cause-me-to-drop-dead-of-a-heart-attack unsafe zone. I am inching closer and closer to trying pasta again, but a touch of lactose intolerance means that I am not highly motivated to stretch my boundaries when it comes to heavily creamed or cheesed meals. Most of the dinner entrées at this particular bistro feature some combination of pasta, cream sauce, or “augratins.” The other descriptions include ingredients like chili, chili broth, chili coriander spice, chili honey, and green chili dirty rice. It turns out that poblanos and anchos are peppers. It turns out that I’m not much of a spicy, peppery kind of girl.
I think it’s to my credit that I remained open-minded about the menu. Once I settled my initial startle reflex, of course. The herb crusted airline chicken breast looked like the most comfortable choice, but I wasn’t opposed to trying something a bit more challenging. It was winter restaurant week in Vanillasville, and I anticipated that the place would be bustling, but as our hostess escorted us to a small table against a far wall, I felt my expectations for the evening peel away like the splitting of a flower’s calyx to reveal the whorl of colorful petals within. The joy of being out with Amelia for the first time in three weeks swept away any anxiety about the linguine and tortellini. It was quiet, almost subdued and there was more than one empty table. A book club was meeting in the large event room behind our wall, but despite the placidity, even our cheerful waiter, Danny, seemed to join in our exuberance. I sighed; I smiled; I blossomed.
“Do you have any questions about the menu?” Danny asked. I was undecided between the airline breast and the tuna ahi puttanesca. According to Wikipedia, the word was an adjective to describe pasta “in the style of a prostitute,” which was just a bit ambiguous. His face brightened and his hands waved as he described the diced tomatoes, capers, and olives that comprised the sauce. It sounded delicious… but I stuttered and stalled at the spaghetti upon which it was served. Maybe next time.
“I’ll have the herb crusted chicken and tomato polenta,” I requested. The concept that tomato polenta sounded appealing to me was earth-shattering enough, and I was not disappointed. I lost track of the number of times I exclaimed, “I can’t believe how GOOD this is!” I closed my eyes and delighted in the flavor, the texture, the consistency, of each of the different ingredients, and the way the garnish of carmelized carrot shavings melted ephemerally into my tongue. When the dishes were cleared, the conversation continued. Amelia is one of the few people in Vanillasville with whom I can be entirely, wholly, authentically, messily, unabashedly myself. We share a history and a trust that doesn’t just happen. “I can’t believe I almost missed this,” I thought. “I can’t believe that we might not have come here because I was scared.” My heart was over-brimming.
When I returned to my apartment, I slept more soundly than any night in at least the previous two weeks. Snug in the warmth of fleece blankets and soft pillows, I was nestled in the comfort of friendship. Knowledge is power. It gave me the courage to nudge myself forward. But…
Connection changes everything.