The Flavors of Summer
Memories of Tastes
The first summer after my freshman year in college, I impulsively decided not to go home, but to spend the summer at my university, in Chicago. I had rented an apartment with some friends -- the type of apartment that is ubiquitous in Chicago -- an old brick railroad flat with a big glass-enclosed sunroom facing the street and a wooden fire escape out back. No air conditioning; few apartments had it.
A Bowl of Independence
The weather that summer was perversely cruel. After what seemed like an endless winter spent in stuffy dorm rooms, summer suddenly settled over the city with an oppressive heat that shackled the body and deadened the imagination. My full-time job -- ideally suited to such ferocious temperatures -- required that I unlock the doors to the university campus buildings each morning. This took me about an hour, after which I was free to return home. I spent the rest of my day at home, with my face pressed close against the reassuring buzz of the window fan. Lethargic, indolent, I began to inhabit my new apartment.
Among my friends, I assumed the role of house mother. I planned menus. I took charge of the cooking. I learned how to grocery shop, how to read labels, and how to compare prices. I discovered what a significant investment a well-stocked spice cabinet was, and I learned how long a box of cereal will last in a household of post-pubescent males. Occasionally I attempted a dinner party, but the awful heat produced by the stove usually made the meal a sticky, sweaty affair.
So in the evenings, as the sun began to lose its punishing force, my friends and I ventured out from our safe dark places beside the fan. Like hungry vampires, we explored a city that seemed to offer limitless nourishment. We discovered Pilsen, Chicago's Mexican neighborhood, where we dined on cabrito, carne asada, and chicken with mole. There we devoured ceviche and gorditas from street vendors during the midsummer fiesta. We visited Greek town, where we watched as flaming plates of saginaki flew by us, and deftly ducked in before waiters brandishing outsized skewers of marinated meat. On weekends we dined on Dim Sum in Chinatown. We flaunted our sophistication by choosing chicken's feet, which we all pretended to like, but which no one really ate. We ordered the sea cucumber, the jellyfish, and the cow's stomach. Their was no limit to our boldness. We acquired a taste for sushi, and when we could afford it, we would treat ourselves to a trip to Wrigleyville, a relatively stylish neighborhood that seemed to feature a superabundance of Japanese restaurants. We sampled pirogis in Wicker Park and devoured Polish sausages on Maxwell Street. We discovered Indian, Korean, Thai, and Italian cuisines. The Chicago I came to know that summer was less a city than a giant amalgamation of ethnic neighborhoods, each with its flag proudly displayed in edible colors. It was a city of infinite flavor, and in those slow, sultry summer months it came to be my home, my first home away from parents.
I tasted something scrumptious in that lazy summer heat. It was Independence. It was more than just the freedom from parental nagging, curfews, and chores. It was an independence made palpable through a bowl of Bi Bim Bob, or a plate of pad Thai. There was something so liberating about having complete control over my diet, about being able to eat what I wanted, when I wanted. And that sudden, orgiastic independence engendered a deep craving that I was never to lose. I had always been a picky eater. Now, I grew quite demanding in my need for food, and when, at the end of that summer, I was denied the satisfaction of indulgence, I cried, culminating in a tearful exclamation, "But I must have something delicious to eat every day!" It was quite ridiculous. But for me, restraint was an affront to my newly discovered adulthood. Years later, I recall that first summer in Chicago with ironic equanimity. My adult world is now so comfortably restrained by a husband, children, day jobs, and mortgages. But still I strive to eat something delicious every day.