Deceptions, Distortions, Desserts: a cellist's love affair with food
During the question-and-answer period that followed a string quartet performance I played at a local public school, an adorable little girl stood and asked my quartet, "Is music your favorite thing?"
One by one, in order of highest to lowest register, the four of us answered her question. From first to second violinist, to violist, I listened as my colleagues replied that, yes, music was their favorite thing. When my turn came, I smiled, nodded, and echoed my colleagues.
I was lying. While my devotion to music is deep and intense, my favorite thing is, and has always been, food.
But when speaking with a fourth grader excited about her first exposure to classical music, there were some things I felt I should keep to myself. I thought it best not to say that, while many previously thrilling aspects of my life had turned into disappointments, every plate of French fries I've ever eaten was divine. No child needed to hear about my recent emergency trip to the dentist to replace a crown yanked from one of my molars by a stale, but tasty, gummi worm unearthed while cleaning my glove compartment. And this girl definitely didn't need to know I thought that gummi worm was well worth the dentist visit.
Because I was raised by good Baptists, I was uncomfortable lying to the girl. So I rationalized my falsehood by telling myself that, if I broadened the category of music to include the exquisitely tender spare ribs a violinist friend serves at his annual New Year's party and the mind-blowingly delicious cranberry-pistachio shortbread cookies another orchestra colleague bakes every Christmas, I could get away with saying that music was my favorite thing. It was more of a fib than a lie.
And that fib was really a public service. If I'd started talking about food, I wouldn't have been able to resist the urge to elaborate on how my connection with food is the longest, most complicated, and most troubled relationship of my life. My fib spared a room full of children from the sound of me droning on about the lifelong struggle with obesity that has resulted from my food affair, which inevitably leads to endless stories of adolescent insecurity and social awkwardness that even I am sick of hearing. By not being entirely truthful, I was doing those kids a huge favor.
I've grown out of much of my youthful awkwardness and I'm not particularly insecure. But my food obsession has stubbornly held on through the years. I could find my way, blindfolded, to every barbecue joint in a five-mile radius. Nearly all breakfast conversations with my significant other start with, "What's for dinner?" When my career focus shifted from music to writing, I set my first novel in a diner. At my first book signing, a woman approached me and said, "I really enjoyed your book. It's a 300-page love letter to food."
A couple of months ago, I accepted an invitation to speak with a book club. After the book discussion, a dozen ladies and I retired to the dining room of our hostess's home where we were served coffee and dessert. I was handed a plate that contained a macaroon the size of a fist, two milk chocolate-dipped strawberries, a slice of apple tart, and a superb, sunshine yellow lemon bar that was dusted with confectioner's sugar.
As I enjoyed my treats, my hostess approached and said, "Between music and literature, you must have trouble choosing your favorite thing." Then she winked conspiratorially and said, "I bet it's literature, isn't it?"
The truth, that music and literature were vying for second and third place, didn't seem like the best answer, especially after having spent the previous hour expounding on the joys of writing. But the Baptist in me still resisted telling an outright lie.
So I took stock of the greatest pleasures of my literary life. To that list, I added the delicious sausages I had in Munich on the last night of my German book tour, the fresh seafood I ate after a reading in Cape Cod, and the deviled eggs with jalapeños and bacon I gobbled down at a luncheon with readers in a Southside Chicago mansion. Then I smiled at my hostess, licked powdered sugar from that wonderful lemon bar off of my lips … and fibbed.