Notes from the Napkin: Birthday Meals

11 Jun

This was a birthday in every sense of the word. I think birthdays are all about collecting your most favorite things and placing them into one expansive day. The texts you get from friends, the outfit I picked out (shorts and a jean shirt), the bands I blared, even word choice seems to be all the more enjoyable on a special day.

It all actually all started on June 8th, when I grabbed all the great items that go into my favorite breakfast brew: crepe batter. Flour, vanilla extract, sugar, Kahlua, all dived into the blender per Alton Brown’s (incidentally, my favorite Food Network personality) request. The batter sits overnight to minimize bubbles, something that can tear the envelope thin crepes apart.

(My favorite thing about this is how he says that the first one is always botched. My first is always too buttery, but instead of feeding it to the dog, I hand it off to an eager friend).

I have built my own method, and cooking crepes isn’t really as daunting as the press (and Williams and Sonoma employees) would like all to believe. I don’t have a crepe maker, but with a small skillet, rubber scraper, and a little bit of audacity to reach into a hot pan (it’s good to use that extra birthday boost of self confidence here), making crepes is easier than, well, pie.

I wanted to do a fusion of French and Caribbean that’s a little more harmonious than history has allowed; a marriage like William and Kate that I can’t get enough of: bananas foster.

Now, this blossoming bananas foster had everything stirring smoothly: the skillet bubbled up with that honey-like scent of brown sugar and rum, but there’s also a theatrical side to it. The solution gets lit, and the food caramelizes and welds under the heat, but my house, of all moments, was tragically out of matches. Playing with matches is never a good thing unless it’s intended to be gastronomical. I ran up a flight of stairs (clearly, this was a big deal), but no matches in my drawers, pockets, ashtrays, trays-it felt like a hobo desperately needing a light. The unlit creation just kept bubbling and watching my ridiculous hustle. They got a little dark on the bottom, but after searching (well, rummaging violently like the Incredible Hulk) for fire, I gave up, and tried the pan just the way it was, a sludge. Aesthetically, I was a little dubious. Try to imagine a crystallized, almost molasses like mixture. Dark banana-flavored taffy that sticks to your teeth and gives the sugar buzz that not even Lucky Leprachaun or Trix Rabbit can. On a crepe with toasted walnuts and powdered sugar, it was fantastic. By itself, the best tasting mistake I’ve ever made.

I had bought a milk frother for 3 bucks from IKEA, so I got to make a latte at home, and I think I was already exuberant with my birthday before 8 am.

After going in to work at the Hospice office for two hours (the staff chaplain made a “birthday remix”), I needed a quick on the road meal before heading up to Charlotte for the afternoon. I stopped at Rock Hill’s Earth Fare. I looked around the store first (I don’t get to go to specialty grocery stores like here and Whole Foods a lot, so it’s like going on a fun trip to a food theme park), got mistaken for one of the troubadors of the HMS Earth Fare (maybe it was the shirt, but that’s first time I’ve ever been placed as an employee anywhere), and then stopped at the sushi stand.

Looked, looked, looked.

“Can I help you with something?”

I looked up, and the sushi chef, who might be a little older than me, was smiling back.

As awesome as talking sushi with a real purveyor of things fishy, he seemed busy, and not talkative (for the record, one of the cashiers said he comes in and does an intense burst of sushi construction and then leaves in a flap of a fin).

I ordered an eel roll (I had a craving for something that was a little more exotic than just a veggie roll), and the man in the yellow shirt began scooping, forming, cracking, slicing, and selecting with an undistracted focus. He finished the roll with a crunchy crop dusting of sesame seeds, and a thick brown sauce (seemed to be a common thread of the day), and walked around the front.

My cashier and I talked about what aging meant to us. I’ve noticed that imparting advice takes on a different air now that I’ve aged into double decades. At 57, the cashier had her own opinions and a spark of vitality, and I got her wisdom imparted before I departed.

Grocer for a day.

I went up to Cornelius to visit and interview a chef and caterer at the Galway Hooker, an Irish pub. The conversation we had is on the to-transcribe docket (transcription makes you need a prescription), but expect a blog post within the week with highlights of our talk. Chris Boukedes, the chef and organizer of the Comedy Zone of Charlotte, Bouk Catering, and the soon to be Charlotte catering, flipped through a magazine on classic cheeseburgers while talking to me about taste, growing up, and hard work. It was the kind of stuff that good cards make you think about.

After the buzz of the interview, I met up with my friend Jeremy for a screening of X-Men: First Class.

It was every bit as adventurous as I was hoping. The movie was a prequel that wasn’t all unnecessary background but a good character story about Xavier and Magneto. I think the two of them made an on screen duo that should have gotten some more time. Seriously, they could have been Han and Luke. I did have one issue: Kevin Bacon. As the bad guy? His greatest power is being able to separate himself from any human being on earth. That’s a cool power.

Dinner was a trip to Mert’s. A trip. Jeremy and I joined a caravan of others after the movie to take the light rail uptown. The train filled up with soccer fans for the Mexican team. Huge hats, green t-shirts, little kids glancing out the window: it all added up for a energetic and positive energy, and then at one stop, it was silent as everyone left.

None of the guys had ever been to Mert’s before, so with the excitement of a tour guide, I gave them a rundown of the restaurant. It’s one of the most iconic places in Charlotte area and topic choice of mine before, but just as classic and enjoyable as the music swooning out of the place’s speakers. It’s a top choice for Charlotte bankers, and at one point, the place was going to close until a collective of bankers colluded together to save the place. I kind of wish the same thing could happen for Lehman Bros.

Courtesy of Mert's Flickr Stream

I’m a big fan of the wall of record covers and family photographs. Lady Soul and the old lady are side by side, and there some quirky installations all over the place, like a plywood bird, an overflow of chicken wire. My friend Thomas described it as being like Cracker Barrel, except without the rusty saws, blown out shotguns, and crispy cornbread. I ordered the salmon cakes (Thomas also ordered the crab-cake like delicacies worth a post of their own), the collard greens with a heavy vinegar base, and an okra & tomato stew. The cornbread was the color of my shorts, and I think the recipe is probably heavily protected. Sony and Google have been hacked recently, but I think Mert’s cornbread recipe may be under even tighter guard. Like Fort Knox, but these are edible bars of gold. Jeremy got the fried chicken, and Jordan tried his first shrimp po’ boy (we discussed the mysterious origins of the sandwich) with remoulade on it. This sauce, a spicy Ranch like dressing, was off-putting to him at first, but I think he ended up liking it.

The waitress was the same one I’ve had before, and even though the food there is totally deserving of the “finger-lickin’ good” label, the service is what makes me want to go back again and again. Our server told us that people like to take their shoes off and unroll their toes after “the good home cooking.” With that warm, full feeling, I think it’s hard not to kick off shoes. She peered at us when I told her I’d lounge around the place. She definitely doted on us kids.

He claimed to be going to “find the restroom,” but Jordan was chatting up the counter and our waitress. We made sure to give him a fair share of teasing. Even though I’m older, I can’t resist the urge to act like a kid. Next thing I knew, the waitresses closed in our table singing “Happy Birthday” with a dish of banana pudding the size of a trash can lid. We split it like fondue, but I was both as full as a piggy bank on pay day (to use a Southern like metaphor), plus my mom had made a birthday cake, so I was skimpy on the puddin’.

I got home to open some cards with my mom and sister, and the finishing touch was the coconut cake slices we shared. That was the home cooking, and it wouldn’t have been the same without it.

I think every birthday is significant, but this was totally worth waiting twenty years for.


One Response to “Notes from the Napkin: Birthday Meals”


  1. Brunching and Brooklyning: Birthdays are the Best « Table Scraps - June 12, 2012

    […] was a glorious birthday, and one that totally trumps last year’s. Granted, I’m in New York City, instead of working as an office assistant this summer, but all […]

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