Late last October my Mom and her fiancé, Charley, took me out to dinner. We went to Caffé Umbra, a fun little restaurant in the South End of Boston. It was not even two months after being hit by the car; I was dependent on crutches and a bulky knee brace and only just lucid enough, post-skull-fracture, to comprehend the significance of my injuries.
I remember feeling extremely nervous. My heart fluttered as we drove together to the restaurant. It was the first time I had done something “normal” – the first time I had ventured out into a public, social situation while injured. I was afraid that people would stare at me; I was terrified of attention. I was scared that being in a restaurant would make me sad, truly hammering in the consequences of my loss of smell. I was afraid of entering the familiar culinary environment and suddenly seeing how quantifiable the post-accident changes truly were.
Charley let my mom and me out on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant before he parked. One glance at the small, dimly lit bustle of the dining room made my stomach sink in apprehension. The tables were close together; walking with crutches would be difficult. There were lots of young professionals, fancied up in suits and dresses and sipping drinks at the bar, independent and healthy. Though shy in high school and perhaps (quite) awkward in junior high, I have not had any problems with confidence or social comfort in a long while. But hobbling through the dining room that night, my mom’s hand constantly hovering at my back, the hostess having just helped me climb out of my jacket while I balanced precariously on one leg, I could feel my self-conscious teenage angst creeping steadily out of my ears. No one really looked at me. Even if they had been, there was truly nothing to be embarrassed about. Being young and on crutches is a common occurrence. My cheeks were burning none the less.
But then we sat, my crutches nestled inconspicuously in a nearby corner. My mom and I faced Charley, our backs to the wall, with a full view of the crowded restaurant. The air was peppered with laughter, low tones of deep conversation, loud greetings and the whispered clink of forks and knives. Pomegranate martinis were placed in front of my mom and me, bright purple. I began to feel more comfortable. Charley, would of course never drink something so girlishly colorful, and his glass of Chianti tapped our sweet drinks as we smiled, cheers, happy that we could finally all be out of the house together.
I don’t remember what we ate. I can only recall the vague taste of martini -- like sugar water with a tang, any sort of nuance lost in those early stages of my olfactory regrowth. But the food itself wasn’t the important part. As we sat and talked, eating and drinking our way through a few hours of the evening, my awkward self-consciousness melted away. Perhaps because of the strength of thesaid martinis, yes. But also because, after those few initially awkward moments, I was finally able to look beyond my fear of injury and change. And I remembered that I love all things culinary for a reason -- a reason beyond the subtleties of flavor. Beyond qualifications of the chef and quality of ingredients. Food brings people together – the obvious happiness of those in the restaurant, patrons leaning cheerfully over their plates, sharing bites, laughing into delicate glasses of wine. People dressed nicely, together, bonding over the shared experience of a meal. I had fun for the first time in months that night. My mouth muscles, the ones used for smiling, reasserted themselves back into my physical repertoire.
Recently I’ve been sad about my less-than-full ability to taste. I’m at a plateau, recovery-wise. Completely healed, it is only the lack of smell that lingers in this tumultuous year of change. I’ve been struggling with what I want to be doing with myself and my writing. I’m in a rather constant state of confusion. But I’ve realized that the confusion may not dissipate for a while. And in coming to terms with that, I am now more fully aware of the other things, many other things, that there are to concentrate on. I’ve been happily reminding myself, now that I’m feeling more settled in my new home, why I love the culinary. Taste was a part of my kitchen-love, of course. But certainly not the only part. It’s a matter of exploration and fun. The way food brings us together and inspires universal pleasure.
For example, one night this week my friend Colin and I took a romp from our Park Slope stomping grounds deeper into the realm of Brooklyn. We were on a quest for pizza. The best pizza. Di Fara’s Pizza. And fresh off the Avenue J stop off the Q train, I found myself turning in circles searching for some visual confirmation of the well-lauded pizzeria. Perhaps I expected some kind of spotlight, bright neon sign – fireworks? Singing elves? Something to loudly advertise the amount of wonderful hype I’ve been hearing about this little nook-ish restaurant. I saw only a calm, quiet neighborhood; there was nothing out of the ordinary. I was ready to pull out all my pizza-radar equipment (though, in reality what that involves I have no idea – maybe some kind of magic wand slash scuba diving mask) – when I noticed Colin staring at me, eyebrows raised.
“It’s right here, Molly.”
“Oh. Right.” I looked up, right in front of us, and saw the simple faded sign. Di Fara’s Pizza.
Di Fara’s is contained in a small, bright little room – a tall counter separates the few tables from the oven area. Domenico DeMarco, a slight, older man with gray hair and a green plaid button-down shirt, lorded unassumingly over the pizza dough and the ovens. He wore an apron and exuded an aura of calm. His slow movements were deliberate, delicate and perfectly executed. A light rhythm of guitar chimed in the background, twinkling of old school Italian. The walls were covered with articles about his pizza.
Colin and I watched Mr. DeMarco work (after ordering our cheese pie) as we sat at a small corner table. One pizza at a time; there is nothing fast involved in this food. It deliciously slow. Colin and I had stopped by a neighboring convenience store and had crisp, cold beers to entertain us as we waited. Still in their paper bags, we drank them with straws (Yes the straws were a strange twist, I know. But somehow that straw turned it into the perfect pizza-beer. More perfect than a normal pizza-beer. Don’t ask questions, just believe me.)
Our pizza came to us, an hour later, piping hot, thin crusted with twinges of burnt crispiness on the edges. Bubbling melted mozzarella di bufala over the thick red sauce (homemade multiple times daily, I hear). We watched – Colin practically clapping his hands, seal-like, in pizza-glee – as Mr. DeMarco drizzled olive oil and carefully snipped the leaves off a fresh bunch of basil over the pie, finishing it off with a smattering of hand-ground Grana Padano cheese to sprinkle over. We ate until it felt like death was knocking at the door – the pizza slices fairly melted down my throat. The Di Fara pain is a good one though. As pleasant as an over-eating pain could possibly be.
It’s true that I can’t taste every aspect of this pizza (or any food) fully and completely without smell. But that isn’t the draw of this experience, even. It is the feeling of a lovingly made pizza practically dancing in your mouth, soft and crunchy, salty and sweet. It is the olive oil dribbling down the corner of your mouth (“Now that’s cute, Molly,” said Colin, “beer with a straw and oil dripping down your chin. Classy.”) It’s the adventure of a new neighborhood, new food and new friends.
We slunched ourselves, full to the brim, to the subway for our ride back home. [‘Slunched’ isn’t a word, I know; but I do feel it accurately portrays our state of being at that moment. You can’t just ‘slump’ if you are that full.] Colin was cold, an unusual occurrence for him, and I made the astute observation that all the blood generally keeping him warm was in his belly, working on the pizza. I suppose that if instead of on the subway on a warm spring night we were somewhere out in the unprotected open wilderness in the middle of winter for a long time, this pizza-induced-cold might have been dangerous. But what I really think is that the human body does have its priorities straight. If I had to choose between basic body function (such as temperature control) and an evening of Di Fara’s pizza – I would probably choose pizza. That’s why they invented the jacket.