Back in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, I lost my sense of smell and taste. I was alone the night I noticed it, eating salad and a bowl of pasta in front of the news. The kale tasted like leather. The arrabbiata had no kick. Must be the Flonase I remember thinking. A week or so before, it had occurred to me that my springtime sneezing might scare people close by, so I decided to get a head start on allergy medication.
Little did I know that physical proximity was about to become a dream. And that losing one’s senses would be a handy metaphor for the strange journey we were all embarking on.
Let me just say: I’m so lucky. Though I contracted the coronavirus, I had the mildest of cases. I never lost a step and, amazingly, didn’t pass the virus on to anyone around me. What’s more, my primary symptom is, for me, nothing more than a nuisance. I mean, I appreciate a fresh meal as much as the next person, but it’s not like my life — or livelihood — depends on it. I’m not Ben DeForest trying to season his famous Island Fresca. I’m not Betsy Larsen putting salmon to the smell test. I only have to feed my family a passable meal, and try not to burn up the cookware. (Coronavirus pro tip: Keep someone with a nose around when you’re steaming broccoli in a shallow pan.)
And yet, with summer upon us, I find myself longing for food in a way that has nothing to do with taste, or even hunger.
I want to eat with my friends.
I want Ottolenghi burgers at Mike and Syd’s, sitting shoulder to shoulder at their dining room table. I want Patrick’s paella, and Kimbrough’s corn pudding. I want Nina’s butterscotch brownies she’s been making since she was ten — and I want to snatch one more edge piece on the way down to the basement to play ping pong.
I want to move the furniture around on our little screen porch and crowd two too many people in for Daphne’s fried chicken and bottles of rosé and sneaky cigarettes. I want everyone to stay while Ed jumps in the water, then comes back grinning under the moonlight.
I want clams on the grill at Dave and Gogo’s. I really want clams on the grill at Dave and Gogo’s.
The recipe: Grab a couple of rakes and go to Tashmoo Pond. Sift around in the muck until you fill your floating buckets with littlenecks just big enough to be legal. Bring them home and watch Dave toss them on the outdoor fireplace he built from scratch. Holler with imagined pain as he pulls them off bare-handed, fingers weathered by decades of creative labor. Dip in melted lemon butter. Serve with tequila and late night guitar music. And sit real close together because … why not?
These are mournful times. For now I’ll feed on my memories, and count my lucky stars. This morning I ate a fistful of blackberries. They were sweet.
They tasted of hope.
Alexandra Styron’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair among other publications. Her most recent book, for young adults, is Steal This Country: A Handbook for Resistance, Persistence, and Fixing Almost Everything.