The meal that changed my life

by Danielle Del Vicario

As someone who is equally apprehensive about meaningless small talk and awkward silences, dinner dates have always held a certain fear for me. Just two strangers, sitting there watching each other eat—what could be more artificial? Add chopsticks and you have a recipe (no pun intended) for ungraceful disaster. And unlike a coffee date, you can’t escape early by announcing, “Whoops, I have to run to lecture.”

Last month, I went for dinner with a guy I’d met volunteering. Aware of my love of cooking, as conversation about approaching exams ran dry, he asked that most dreaded of questions: “What’s the best meal you’ve ever had?”

My heart sank. Although a girl who will happily chat to a farmer about seven different types of apple, I don’t like answering direct questions about my personal preferences, especially when I’m in England. Despite my apparent ‘foodie’ status, my tastes are pretty simple and I’ve mastered the art of just nodding along when my British friends talk about game, port and cheese boards.

I mumbled something non-committal, searching frantically for a “life-changing” culinary memory. Why was it so hard to choose? It’s not like my twenty-odd years of life have been particularly marked by high-flying eating experiences!

But, of course, that was the point.

From my early years of standing on a chair to help mom make cake from a Betty Crocker mix, I’ve loved cooking for others. We ate all of our dinners as a family and, after every one, Dad would exclaim, “Thanks, Heath. That was the best meal I’ve ever had!”

Family meals are rare now that we’ve scattered around the world. Still, whenever we’re all home, we feast on pasta with meatballs and mom’s rosemary focaccia. So last September when we sat down to plates of steaming tagliatelle in a little corner of Italy, the meal was life-changing in its very embodiment of ordinariness.

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Tagliatelle: ordinary yet life-changing

We had just taken a cramped local bus up to a remote church to attend an Italian service (NB: none of us speak Italian) with Gregorian chant. Afterwards we stood by ourselves in an empty parking lot, stomachs growling as our bus grew ever later. Giving in, Dad called a taxi and instructed the driver, “Take us to your favourite restaurant.”

Seated in chairs packed so tightly that we ate with elbows glued to ribs, we knew we made the right choice. The boar sauce was simple, but perfect. Dad beamed: “You can’t get more local than this!” Dad normally doesn’t pay attention to my rants on local eating and I felt my throat tighten (Mom and I had, by this point, shared a bit too much house wine…)

I returned to England the following weekend, the restaurant business card tucked into my pocket. And nine months later, as I sat awkwardly pushing rice into manageable clumps in an upscale Asian fusion restaurant, I suddenly smiled and launched into a story about a family defined by shared pots of pasta.