This past month has been the cruelest April I’ve ever known, breeding icicles out of the dead land, mixing ennui and irritation, stunting dull roots with unseasonable snow. Cabin Fever Month is almost over, finally, and it’s going out with a soft exhalation of sunny updrafts that shake the new buds and cause the crocuses to bob like the heads of dashboard hula girls, and all is forgiven, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten any of its earlier depredations.
The phrase “mixing memory and desire” has always resonated deeply, but I’ve always internally translated it to “muddling nostalgia and craving.” Memory and desire are more literary and refined, the sort of emotions a well-bred lady might swoon with, requiring smelling salts, a lavender hankie, or, at the very least, a thimbleful of sherry, a turn about the topiary garden.
Nostalgia and craving are blunter, more animal and immediate, and therefore closer to my own experience. They’re also basically the same thing, except one is hunger for the past and the other is hunger for the future. For decades, I used to experience recurring, agonized, frenzied, gut-piercing nostalgia and craving—looking back through a rosy gel of subjective distance at some time when I was “happier” or “freer” or “more alive,” and in the middle of that, craving something that I couldn’t quite imagine but that I knew I would recognize when I found it, something I’d never had before but knew existed; it was all very convoluted, but no less intense for that.
These wild nostalgia/craving interludes used to feel like the emotional equivalent of huddling in a little rowboat, without oars, riding high ocean swells in a rain and lightning storm. When they hit, there were certain songs or pieces of music I could not listen to because they caused my soul to leap from my body in exalted agitation—during different eras, this might have been Schubert’s C Major Quintet, Al Green’s “Jesus is Waiting,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” or Cat Power’s entire “Jukebox” album. And during those times, I couldn’t eat at all.
What was I nostalgic for? What was I craving? I can hardly remember now.
These days, in my settled, contented, grounded middle age, when I crave something, it’s usually food, and when I feel nostalgic, it’s usually for a recent time that reminds me, tamely, of something in the present. This past April, with all of its icy winds and lowering skies and terrible vicissitudes, couldn’t shake that. It only made me more aware of how different my life feels now.
Craving, like nostalgia, has, in recent years, moved closer to home. These past few months, having no way to cook, being in the throes of kitchen renovation, I’ve become aware with renewed appreciation of the fact that our house is surrounded by a startling number of excellent restaurants, all within a three-block radius. There are other, equally excellent restaurants, five or seven or ten or twelve blocks away, but with such bounty, who needs to walk so far?
The restaurants within a 5-minute stroll of our front door are as follows: a funky, tin-ceilinged brick-oven pizza place that makes the best gluten-free pizza dough I’ve ever eaten; a Japanese noodle place with luscious sushi rolls drizzled with house-made mayo and toasted almonds, and slurpy noodles in rich broth with pork belly and halved hard-boiled eggs and scallions; not one, but two homey, stylish, slouchy, glam hipster bars that serve healthy gourmet food; a New Orleans joint with dollar oysters at Happy Hour and classic Louisiana grub and a tray of different sauces and pickled peppers on every table; a locally beloved Italian-French place with cozy booths and perfect tequila gimlets and a menu of Mediterranean-inspired dishes that changes all the time; an elegant Thai “street vendor inspired” tapas-and-skewer bar whose chef was recently up for a James Beard award; and finally, our favorite, a classic corner bistro with perfect steak frites, perfect simple salads, perfect pot de crème, and perfect service, décor, and everything else. (There’s another Japanese place, too, and it looks great, but we love our regular one so much, we’ve never seen any reason to try it.)
All this, within three blocks. Even during the two decades I lived in New York, no matter what neighborhood I was in, I never had this variety and quality of culinary excitement so close by.
We go regularly to all of these restaurants, except three. We have to remind ourselves to go to the Thai place and the Mediterranean place and one of the bars, good as they all are. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is; they’re three of the most lauded joints in town. Finally, I realized that what drives me back to a restaurant is a combination of craving and nostalgia—for something in particular: the corner bistro’s steak frites, or the pizza place’s baby arugula pizza with pesto and goat cheese, or the noodle house’s shiitake-avocado roll, or the Cajun joint’s addictive, saucy, tender chicken wings, or the roast cauliflower salad with hummus at one of the bars.
I haven’t yet found that magical thing at the other three that induces me to go back, zombielike, drooling with anticipation like Homer Simpson headed for a box of donuts. All three places have exceptional food, but none has yet inspired in me that sweet-spot lust for a dish that announces itself on my palate in the mid-afternoon slump of my workday and makes me text Brendan, “Happy Hour chicken wings at 5?” and makes him text back within one minute, “Okay!!!”
I’m already half-seduced by the Thai place’s steamed vegetables with smoky eggplant dip. Last time we went to the Mediterranean place, I had grilled lamb chunks in red lettuce-leaf wraps with yogurt sauce; I think that might be it, but I have to have it again to know for sure. And the other bar has stools in the plate-glass window facing the street where you can sit and watch everyone go by as you drink and eat; who cares what you order?
As Kierkegaard said, “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.”
I think what he’s trying to say is that he would have loved the eggplant dip at the Thai place.