Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dispatches from Middle Earth, Part II: What We Ate

(alternatively titled: An Ode to Lamb Burgers)

(This post is the second of a five-part series on what I saw, experienced, and learned during mine and Carrie's honeymoon to New Zealand by way of San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Yes, this was a time of rest and vacation for the both of us, but it is in fact quite difficult for someone who deals in profoundness for a living to escape such depth of meaning simply because he is off relaxing in another country.  I was moved in many ways during my short time away, and I hope at least a faint morsel or two of that impact shines through in my words to you here.  Finally, all pictures in this series are taken by me unless noted otherwise.  I'm not a great photographer, so be gentle. ~E.A.)

For me, there is, and always has been (at least since I graduated to baby food to solids) something happy and joyous about sitting down to a meal.  Part of that I am sure is the satiating of my hanger (I'm rather prone to getting hangry), and another part of it is, I am equally sure, simply because I am a disgusting glutton, but part of it is also spiritual.  Meals are what celebrate the liberation of the Israelites out of slavery, the liberation of us all out of sin (via the Last Supper), as well as more civic holidays like Thanksgiving (What? That's around the corner?! Holy crap).

Meal-sharing really is a Biblical thing--when the prodigal son returns to his father, shamed and chastened, the forgiving father has the fatted calf slaughtered and served in a celebratory banquet.  Much of Jesus' teaching takes place around a dinner table, be it at Simon the Pharisee's palatial digs or at Mary and Martha's more humble abode in Bethany.  And in Psalm 23, far and away the most famous of them all, we may all know how it begins ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...") but how it ends includes the verse "you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies."

Even though New Zealand is far from an enemy (in fact, almost across the board, the Kiwis we met were friendly, open, and exceedingly gracious hosts), Carrie and I sat at tables prepared across the country: some prepared by others, and some prepared by ourselves.

The first table, though, came in Hong Kong (our exploits there you can read about here), when we stumbled entirely by accident upon a second-floor dim sum joint that was incredibly endearing to us: not only was the carpet, walls, and decor likely from the 1970s or so, but the clientele largely consisted of two demographics: elderly men and women, and their middle-aged children accompanying them to breakfast.

(As an aside, stumbling entirely by accident was pretty much our default mode of transportation in Hong Kong.  The only reason we even knew which stop to get off at on the bus was because some well-meaning schoolchildren got to practice their English by reading the bus stops off to us, since we of course had no idea where we were.)

This restaurant has communal tables, and I have to say that as a card-carrying introvert, I actually heartily endorse the use of communal tables in restaurants.  We sat across from two different couples--one younger and one older, and while C and I spoke no Chinese and they spoke no English, the smiles and gestures were enough to communicate our enjoyment of the meals we were having, and that truly did add to the richness of what we were experiencing.

The true culinary richness of our trip would come in New Zealand, though: we landed in Auckland from Hong Kong on C's birthday, and so I took her to The Grove, a restaurant I researched extensively and booked weeks beforehand for this evening.  It was homework well worth doing.

I only have a picture of one of the five courses we ate, but it was by far the most virtuousic one, ash-baked parsnip with with apples and carmelized red endives:

(We also had, if you clicked on the link above which takes you to their menu, the ika mata, asparagus and pigeon ravioli, a cheese course, and then our first taste of NZ lamb, which of course was fantastic, even though I was completely stuffed by that point).  The prices are in New Zealand dollars, which the US dollar exchanges favorably with, so the prices were actually lower for us than what are quoted.  In terms of the food itself, it was superlatively good.  More on that later, though.)

I think another part of the reason the price of the meal was so cheap relative to fine dining in America is that, well, there isn't as much of a dining culture in New Zealand--though it is certainly growing.  Our server asked if we needed the concept of prix fixe (or fixed price) explained to us, and, well, after seeing this particular Subway advert in a local pamphlet, I couldn't blame her:

Custom-made right in front of my eyes?!  It's like fracking magic!  And you say it's my choice whether to toast it or not?  Well, paint my tongue purple and call me Charlie the unicorn, that's just the most luxurious thing I've ever heard of!

(Now, I'm not trying to be a snob here--in point of fact, I've eaten at Subway dozens of times in my life.  But when you make it sound like a magic show that one of your "sandwich artists" (a term I find hilarious for so many reasons) can slap some cold cuts and veggies on a bun with a smell that I both love and hate simultaneously, I'm sorry, but we might be operating with different assumptions on what constitutes a nice meal.)

However, I'm still a rube myself, as *my* own idea of a nice meal consists of a bowl of these for breakfast, a cereal that comes from Australia but that criminally I have never seen anywhere in the US:

You know those obnoxious Foster's commercials that say that Foster's is Australian for beer? You know, these?  Well, I can say definitively that Weet-Bix Crunchy Honey is Australian for crack.  I went through two half-kilo boxes while we were there.

Of course, cereal may be quite basic, but you also don't really care when your view from your dining room (aka our rented campervan) is this:

Or this:

I *did* alternatively title this post "An Ode to Lamb Burgers," and I admit, I haven't even gotten there yet, but oh, what a lamb burger it was, courtesy of the cult-like, famous Fergburger in Queenstown:

The correct term, though, according to the Fergburger menu, is the "Little Lamby burger."  (If you think that's at all barbaric, you might be interested in their vegetarian burger, the "Holier Than Thou" burger.  Yes, that is its real name.)

Why is the lamb so good?  (And the venison, for that matter.)  Because there really are sheep everywhere on the South Island: I couldn't tell you how many herds Carrie and I passed while driving through the different motorways.  It's all local, it's all fresh, and there's tons of it.  None of this packing food away in 18-wheelers to haul it halfway across a giant-sized country like, say, I don't know, the US, only for that food to lose freshness the whole time it's in transit.  Nope, none of that here.

We enjoyed other barbaric meals too, like this whitebait fritter in Auckland:

Look closely.  You see those little black dots at the ends of the little fishes?  Those are eyes.  We ate those whitebaits whole.  And they were fan-freaking-tastic.

In fact, all of the seafood we ate there was exquisite.  Down the mountain a ways from Mt. Cook (stay tuned for those escapades in a later post), there was a salmon farm where you could feed the salmon, then have them butcher the salmon in back, and pick up said butchered fillets fresh off the ice, fillets that had been swimming happily in the water just that morning.

NZ is also much more British than we are, and part of that is all of the tea-drinking they do there.  Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that they do indeed derive their coffee inspiration from one of the best cities in which to get coffee:

Finally, one must always take care when eating outdoors in NZ, because much as they are here, the seagulls are utterly uncivilized and without manners, and will attack an abandoned table of food before your seat has gotten cold.  This particular feller in the coastal town of Kaikoura absolutely loved the butter than our dining neighbors left behind, and is chowing down on said buttery goodness with single-minded zeal:

I didn't try talking to him/her, but I assume that if I did, it would have sounded exactly like the seagulls in Finding Nemo.  That butter was "Mine, mine mine!"

And that really is the antithesis of the joy of sharing a meal, you know?  Okay, your meal is yours, yours, yours (and God knows I'm terrible at sharing when it comes to my dinner), but the communal aspect of meal-sharing is, I have to think, the difference between simply eating to survive and eating to thrive.

Which is what leads me to the final culinary experience worth writing about--one that actually took place stateside, the day after Carrie and I arrived stateside in San Francisco, when we had a reservation to The French Laundry in Napa with Russ, my pastor and mentor from FCC Concord, and his wife Kelli.  This is the menu (which they let you take with you as a keepsake) from our lunch:

You may notice the whopping prix fixe amount of $295.00.  Even with gratuity already included, that's a heck of a lot of clams to spend on one meal, and more than double what both our meals cost at The Grove.  C and I were able to afford this because of the love offering my congregation insisted on so generously giving us as a wedding present.  C and I were (and are) incredibly grateful, and considering the celebratory nature of the gift, we wanted to do something festive with it, so...The French Laundry it was!

And while it was a festive, incredibly enjoyable meal, I am about to speak some culinary heresy: C and I were unanimous that the cuisine at The Grove was better than that at The French Laundry.  Specifically, the inventiveness of a couple of the dishes at The Grove simply wowed us--amazing things were being done with relatively humble ingredients like coconut and parsnip, and while all of the dishes at The French Laundry tasted good, many of them were also rather safe and less exciting.

But the meal was perfectly paced and an utterly delightful way to spend three-and-a-quarter hours with just three other people, even three other people whom I love.  As that card-carrying introvert, I'm liable to go catatonic if placed in such close quarters with the same people for that long.  But it never felt that long, not once.

So we bookended our honeymoon with two amazing meals: one consisting of the best dishes we had ever tasted, and the other consisting of the best eating experience we had ever had.  And going forward in our marriage together, I am sure that these two shall collectively act as the gold standard to which we judge all future meals that we have the pleasure to share together.

(And stay tuned for the next post in this series: "I Belong on Land.  Or: How I Accidentally Signed Up to Water-Torture Myself")

Yours in Christ,

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