One of the reasons I have learned to accept that I will never again look like I did at 25 is that I like to eat. I like to eat well and I like to eat a lot. Many years ago on a business trip to Italy, a group of Italian colleagues took me to a seafood restaurant on the coast outside Rome. We had a 6 course meal and I relished every course, enjoying an assortment of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten in my life. What I didn’t know was that in Italy, women apparently need to be urged to eat seconds of anything and usually refuse 2x before accepting on the 3rd offer. After accepting 2nds during 3 courses without uttering a single “no thank you,” my colleague, Gianprimo, turned to me and said (say this to yourself in a strong Italian accent): “Dianne! You are a good eater!” I laughed, but in my head I was reminded of my farmer relatives talking about their prize winning pigs as “good feeders.”
Ironically, my mother was a horrible cook. No disrespect intended–she was a wonderful woman–but all her frustrations with life, her disappointments, even her anger seemed to go into her cooking. The fact that my childhood was full of love and laughter was completely unrelated to the food I grew up on. As a result, I entered adulthood as a gastronomic blank slate, willing to try anything and finding that most food tasted better than my mother’s cooking.
In Chattanooga, we stumbled upon Taco Mamacita on a visit last January. Located around the corner from the apartment we now live in, it’s quickly become our go-to place when we don’t feel like thinking about where to eat. They offer an assortment of tacos to choose from that are as unmexican as General Homeboy (panko-breaded shrimp fried and served with a distinctly Asian inspired sauce, mexified with heaps of fresh cilantro). This is my personal favorite–I can never get enough cilantro. They also serve up margaritas with freshly squeezed juice over shaved ice. As much as I enjoy trying different tacos from their menu, I also enjoy the assortment of people that congregate there. One evening, there was a sweet-sixteen birthday party with a dozen or so girls all dressed in their finest. Balloons and a big sign announced the event as girls giggled and drank large cokes through straws. On the other side of the restaurant, a family with two small children tried to eat while their toddling daughter tried to run away with her high chair. laughing hysterically at her new game. Across from them, an older couple sat silently, the man sitting with his legs spread wide to accommodate his belly, tucking his napkin under his crotch so that it didn’t fall onto the floor. A younger couple occupied a booth behind them, sitting side-by-side sharing their food and looking into each other’s eyes with every bite. With every stage of life represented in about 500 square feet of space, it’s hard not to be entertained.
We also tried the North Shore Grille, although I was a little confused that they call themselves a crab shack but only offer 2 items on the menu containing crab. I ordered pulled pork. The waitress seemed slightly crazy, complaining about a loud table of women on a ladies night out and laughing so hard when one of them slips on the stairs that she has to walk away. Dimly lit with hard wood floors, large spaces, and a big bar right on the main street with open windows, the restaurant definitely feels more like a pub than a crab shack. The other patrons seem like regulars–often greeting new arrivals by name–adding to the pub feel. Perhaps if we’d opted to sit on the patio, which faces Coolidge Park, we’d have gotten more of a crab shack vibe, but it’s too hot to enjoy outdoor dining that evening. When dinner came, the portions were so large that we ended up taking home enough food for both lunch and dinner the next day. I’m not quite fond enough of pulled pork to want to eat it three meals in a row, but I guess if I valued volume over quality, I would be delighted.
Most recently, we discovered the Italian bistro at the East end of the main drag. They must be new because I can’t even find them with Google. They offer a mix and match menu where you pick your pasta, your sauce, and add whatever toppings you like. I had the 3-cheese ravioli with vodka sauce and lobster meat. The raviolis were house-made, fresh, large and delicious. The sauce was equally fabulous. The lobster meat, however, was overwhelmed by the sauce and the texture detracted from the beautiful raviolis, so I found myself wishing I’d left it off. Definitely a place we’ll go again. On that night, a weekday evening, we ate late, not arriving until 9PM. Fortunately, they serve until 10PM, although only a couple of tables are occupied. We opt to eat in the bar, where most people are sitting. The waitress smiles with genuine enthusiasm. She makes us feel like she’s so happy we’ve come that it isn’t the last hour their open and she’s not at all tired of serving people. We think it must be her first day. 🙂 When I fail to finish my rich pasta, she brings the leftovers back to me in a tidy aluminum dish with a paper cover that she has carefully labeled with the contents and the date. When I open the container the next day to serve up lunch, I can’t help but smile at the care she’s taken.
On another day when Pat is out of town, I am left to fend for myself at lunch. I have 30 minutes between conference calls, so I walk down the street to see what I can find. I see a sign for the River Street Deli and decide a sandwich will be quick and easy. When I pull open the door, I am confronted by a wall with a sign for a store on the left, another store on the right, and a sign for the deli that points in both directions. Since the store on the right is closed, I go left. I enter a store full of crafty trinkets and wonder if I’ve chosen wrong. A woman asks if she can help me and I hesitantly say, “Is there a deli in here?” She instructs me to go out the back door and down the stairs. The River Street Deli is in a walk-out basement facing the opposite direction as the store above with Coolidge Park as its view. I enter and find that it deserted (it’s early for lunch, but I have calls through the more traditional lunch hour). A man offers me a taste of their Stromboli. It’s rich and salty, gooey with cheese. I decide it’s the perfect lunch. Walking out the door a few minutes later with hot Stromboli in a greasy paper bag, I see that park and decide I have enough time to sit and eat. I walk towards the fountains where children squeal as they run through the water. I find a table set apart from the fountains by a row of hedges and sit myself down to enjoy my sandwich. The Stromboli tastes great, but by the time I finish my sandwich, I wish I’d eaten only half of it.
As I sit there munching away, a small tow-head escapes from her mother and comes wandering to my side of the hedge. I watch her cautiously, thinking how freaked out her mother will be when she discovers her tiny urchin out of sight and within grabbing distance of a strange woman eating lunch alone in a park by a children’s playground. I think back to my own childhood that pre-dates fears of child snatching and molestation and how times have changed that I now worry about an unattended child getting too close to me like their proximity endangers me. Equally, I am concerned for the child’s safety, so I watch for anyone coming who might be an real threat rather than an imagined one. Fortunately, the child’s mother comes around the hedge non-plussed. Clearly she has known where her daughter went all along. Her daughter wants to play hide-and-seek, but her mother is not in the mood. She tells her daughter she’s not playing a game and if she doesn’t return to the fountain with her, they’re going home. I smile at the mother with a smile that I hope is reassuring and not creepy.
One morning last week, Pat and I decided to get breakfast out during our morning walk. We checked out Julie Darling Donuts. With recipes rivaling Voodoo donuts in Portland, I had to try their “Pancakes and Bacon” donut. It was good, but for some reason, I couldn’t taste the bacon even though it was real bacon fried up in a pan, crumbled and generously applied to the top of the donut. The donut itself was amazingly moist, rich, and extremely dense. I had to stop after half the donut–after that, the rich sweetness overwhelmed my taste buds. Unfortunately, donuts don’t keep well and taking a bite later in the day meant experiencing the disappointment of a no-longer-fresh donut. I’m glad that I couldn’t eat the whole donut–I really don’t need a new habit that adds hundreds (if not thousands) of empty calories to my already full plate.
While there are more restaurants yet to try on the same block as our apartment, I find I enjoy eating on the other side of the river more. Not necessarily because the food is better (it’s hit or miss), but because I like the longer walk back after eating. Of the few places we’ve tried on the South side of the river, 212 Market St appeals to my inner activist. They pride themselves on green practices and feature sustainably grown foods, including grass-fed meat. I find I can enjoy the food unencumbered by guilt over what I’m eating. Plus, our friendly server, excited to learn that we’re new to the area, offers advice on what to see and do in Chattanooga.
Walking, eating, and walking again combine several of my favorite past times. Walking relaxes me and affords many opportunities to people watch in the busy district. Eating satisfies my taste buds. Walking again helps reduce an overly full stomach to something comfortable again while giving me a second view of the scene of people that has shifted and changed since the walk out to dinner. With tourists rambling over the bridge in the requisite uniform (shorts, polo shirts and white running shoes, often with black socks for men; cropped summer pants and printed T-shirts with sneakers and no socks for women) bumping up against locals on dates in summer dresses and sandals or more alternative locals in all black, chains, and boots, the word “eclectic” comes to mind. Returning over the bridge late on a Friday night in the summer means not only that the crowd is more colorful and lively, but it’s accompanied by the sounds of the summer outdoor music program playing in front of the aquarium. I find myself walking to the beat of the music. With the wind kicking up after sunset, the walk is doubly refreshing after a long, hot day of sitting in front of a computer.