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22 May 2024

Not all memorable meals should be photographed

At a Tennessee breakfast spot, I was so ashamed by the scale of what I was about to consume I wanted no evidence of it.

By Pippa Bailey

I am afraid I’m one of those awful people who often takes a photo of their meal before eating it. At least I don’t let the food grow cold while I arrange the table just right; the pictures don’t have to be presentable, or particularly aesthetic. I take them not for public consumption, but for private remembering. Often, I study these visual records later, while trying to recreate a dish in my kitchen: the cold peanut noodle salad we ate in a rather characterless Chinese-Korean restaurant in Washington DC, and the moderately successful imitation later consumed at home in bed on a weary Friday night. Others simply record a night – the context, the company – I never want to forget: the Neapolitan-style pizza, better than any I’ve eaten in Italy, and pillowy tiramisu we found, late at night, jet-lagged and feet aching, in a busy, bare-brick restaurant in Nashville.

I wrote in my last column about our US road trip of hickory-smoked trout in North Carolina and fried cinnamon rolls in Tennessee. The latter demand further attention. Had I spotted earlier the T-shirts for sale declaring “I finished the fried cinnamon roll at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp”, I might have been wiser to the feat on which I was unwittingly embarking. It was one of the few meals we enjoyed in America that I failed to commit to my camera roll. When it arrived – piled with squirty cream, and with a large, serrated knife unceremoniously stuck into it, as though it were a steak – I was so ashamed by the scale of what I was about to consume that I wanted no evidence of it.

American refill culture makes it hard to keep track of how much sugar or caffeine you are consuming, and the portion sizes are, of course, notorious. While she was topping up our coffees for the tenth time, I told our waitress at Crockett’s that in the UK we don’t do free refills: you buy a coffee, and if you want another one, you have to pay for it. “I would die,” she sighed, “I would just die.” We never quite seemed to learn our lesson, night after night over-ordering, drinking pints of soda, returning to our hotel crashing hard and too uncomfortably full to sleep.

But on two memorable occasions, we got it just right. In Asheville, North Carolina, known as “the Paris of the South” for its vibrant arts scene, we experienced one of the trip’s more rarefied meals. At Table, each dish – shrimp, grits and chard; brassicas, pecorino, cannellini beans – seemed so much more than the sum of its parts, listed starkly on the menu. In DC, we rolled up at 9pm (there is nothing more chic than a late dinner) to Old Ebbitt Grill, a few doors down from the White House. In a green leather and dark-wood booth, our table lit by a side lamp as though in a library, we enjoyed oysters (heavily disguised with cheese and garlic and lemon), crab cakes and – how is this not a thing in the UK? – peanut butter pie. Neither offered drink refills, but they kept the bread coming, and I think I preferred it that way.

As I write it has been a year to the day since my father received the stem cell transplant that saved his life. There are not many positives to cancer treatment, but here’s a strange one. Since he was about 20, my father had had a fungal infection on his big toenail; I had never known him without it. All attempts to treat it had failed. It would outlive all of us; survive, even, nuclear war.

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But during those long months in hospital, he was troubled by an “opportunistic” fungal infection in his lungs – opportunistic because many of us live with such clingers-on every day without knowing it or having any symptoms. Only when the immune system is all but gone do they cause problems: his cough was so persistent he could barely sleep. As a result, alongside chemotherapy, my father was hooked up to many, many bags of anti-fungal medication. Today, the cancer is gone – as is, after 40 years, the toenail infection. What extreme lengths you went to, Dad, we joke, to be able to wear your Birkenstocks without shame.  

[See also: Our US road trip seemed cursed. Then we met the flatfoot dancers]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024