I love food and I am fortunate enough to live in a city that provides me with lots to love. I have friends who are chefs, amateur and professional, and I have stupendous meals, in home kitchens and in restaurants.
But the best meal I ever had?
It was after my high school senior prom, and I can’t even tell you what was on the menu.
I did not grow up in the kind of neighborhood where we rented limousines or hotel rooms after prom; no one had that kind of money. But there was a vague expectation that seniors were old enough to go to some kind of restaurant, maybe even in the “big city” of downtown Chicago. We all knew, I explained to my parents, that there were no curfews on the night of senior prom.
My mother’s thoughts immediately went to fatal drunken driving accidents, drug-induced orgies, teen pregnancy. Nothing good could come of all-night freedom for hormone-crazed teens.
And, so, days later, my mother presented me with a card in an envelope with my name on it. There were cards for my six closest friends and their dates, as well. Inside was a beautiful hand-lettered and hand-drawn invitation to a midnight dinner at “Chez Mitternight” for prom night.
My mother could spin a tale. The language on the invitations was intriguing enough that my friends, who considered themselves young sophisticates, rsvp’d acceptance even though one said, “If it’s really lame, we can always leave early.”
It wasn’t lame.
After prom, my friends and I drove to my house, the windows mysteriously dark.
Inside, the house was transformed. Soft music played. Candles were everywhere. And my father, dapper in a suit and tie, bowed to my friends, asking the ladies if he could take their wraps.
My mother, in a lacy apron over dark clothes, came out carrying a silver tray of appetizers and my father took orders for mocktails.
My friends giggled uncomfortably at first, but my parents never broke character. This was not a gang of kids, but honored guests at a restaurant.
The dining room was an amazing display of flowers, soft lighting, and chafing dishes of tantalizing foods. The good china and crystal sat on a white linen tablecloth. Each place setting had a place card with my mother’s beautiful drawings and our names, and each had a menu for the evening.
This was a dining experience none of my friends could have afforded, far fancier than any place in our budgets. My mother had cooked all day and night. I remember the quantities of food, the subtle groans of pleasure as my friends tucked in with manners made exquisite by the formality of the occasion. There may even have been an extended pinky or two.
What I can not remember is the menu. Miniature pastries, maybe? Some meat made tender by hours of cooking and seasoning? I wish I could remember what I ate, but, all these years later, the evening is like some dream.
Not one of my friends left early. I didn’t even know my parents could stay up so late. In the early hours of the morning, my father played bus boy and my mother poured coffee to go along with whatever delicious dessert she had created.
My friends still talk about this evening, although no one remembers anything more specific about the food than that it was delicious. My parents have both died so there is no asking them. It almost doesn’t matter, because the main thing on the menu was love.
My parents gave me a gift so corny that it elevated itself to cool, simply by treating my friends as respected adults for the night. It was a new role for us, one we were eager to try, and “Chez Mitternight” gave us a safe space to behave like the adults we were becoming.
It was the best meal I have ever eaten.