Before I go, I have something to say

From Fritos To Perfection

Blame it on the Chili Cheese Fritos. On our way from Dubuque to Ann Arbor for yet another visit to the Michigan Extreme Headache Institute, we’d pulled over at a rest stop to, you know, rest. It was two in the afternoon Iowa time, three in Michigan, and I was hungry, so I flattened out a dollar bill and slid it into the vending machine. I’d had my eye on those Fritos at gas stations since the outskirts of Davenport, and my resistance had finally crumbled.

As so often happens, the machine malfunctioned. But instead of getting NO Fritos, we got TWO. Yippee! One for me, one for my husband. We wolfed them down as we proceeded on our endless way east.

We got there just in time to make our 6:00 reservation at Café Habana, a Cuban restaurant teeming with students from the University of Michigan celebrating not only the first warm day all winter but also, to our dismay, St. Patrick’s Day. To say the place was noisy with revelers in green t-shirts would be an understatement. All I wanted was to eat something good and get out of there.

I know I write a lot about food, and cooking, and cookbooks, but one thing I don’t think I’ve mentioned is that unlike Julia Child, say, or Paul Prudhomme, I can’t eat much at one time. Give me a poached egg and I’m full. Give me half a sandwich and a small salad and that’s lunch. “Eats like a bird,” my college boyfriend’s mother remarked, sounding exactly like the parents in “Goodbye Columbus,” which should have warned me against dating him, but, of course, did not.

Once I was having some kind of ultrasound of my esophagus, and my stomach happened to show up on the screen. The doctor in the room commented, “Hmm, you’ve got a long, thin stomach.” Alarmed, I asked, “Is that normal?” Concerned at my alarm, he reassured me it was nothing to worry about. But it’s made me wonder – is that why I can’t eat more than half a pork chop at a sitting? Sometimes I feel like one of those people who’ve had a gastric bypass and really cannot swallow more than a few tablespoons of food at a time without becoming extremely uncomfortable.

What I’ve learned, as a way of coping with this handicap (trust me, it’s no fun) , is to order my entrée off the appetizer menu. That way, I’ve got room for dessert, my favorite part of the meal. Appetizers are like the “small plates” at tapas bars, interesting little compositions of food shrunk down to midget size. I also love buffets, where I can take just one bite of several tasty things. It may seem like a waste of money, but it is literally all I can eat.

So when we sat down to order at that Cuban café, I studied the menu meticulously, finally settling on their Chilaquiles con Polla. Described as fresh corn tortillas simmered in a spicy ancho chile sauce with roasted chicken, white beans, lime crema and fresh avocado, this appetizer sounded like a tasty combination of tastes and textures, and at nine dollars, small enough to allow room for a piece of heavenly tres leches cake.

But no. What arrived was a gargantuan platter of wet corn tortillas soaked in red sauce. True, it contained chicken and white beans, with lime crema and fresh avocado plopped on top. There was enough to feed six hungry children, or one ravenous truck driver. I felt full just looking at it. I could only wonder if anyone had ordered this dish twice. It might serve as a good hangover meal, but to me it was one soggy mess.

This is my other problem – I’m just not very good at imagining a dish from its description on a menu. I love reading cookbooks, but mainly those with full-color photos. Diana Henry’s wonderful cookbooks contain brilliant narratives of each recipe, but I might skip Roast Winter Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese were it not for the accompanying photo, which looks good enough to eat. And I don’t even like squash all that much!

On our next night in Ann Arbor, we went to Amadeus, a Viennese restaurant graced by a classical guitarist rather than taken hostage by drunken college students. Wary of repeating the previous night’s mistake, I studied the menu as if I were about to buy a new car. My wish: I wanted to try something authentic. I wanted to love it. And I didn’t want to wind up too stuffed to enjoy dessert. (I already knew what that would be. Choosing dessert is never the problem.) I could have goulash in a cup, or a Russian potato pancake with sour cream and caviar, Roma artichoke salad, creamed herring, or Golabek, a cabbage roll topped with tomato sauce. They all sounded interesting and good. I decided on the Amadeus pancake, a single potato pancake topped with dill sauce and smoked salmon served over fresh greens.

It was small. It was fun. It was delicious. It was perfect. And even though the freshly baked rolls that arrived with my husband’s Bitki with Kopytka demanded, “Eat me!” I still had plenty of room for a slice of their delectable Sacher Torte, which I had not, somehow, ever tried before, not even on our honeymoon in Austria.

True, as we passed the Schakolad Chocolate Factory next door, I had absolutely no interest in even browsing inside, a state of affairs that normally indicates I’m near death. But there is a big difference between sick and being sated. Satisfied. Well fed, and fed well.


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