Tuesday, April 17, 2012
The Best Lunch
On the western edge of Indiana there's a city that barely qualifies for the name. In its attitudes, its income, its ambitions, everything except its population, it's a town. Small-town Indiana, with all the initial whimsy and eventual dread that phrase inspires. I'm from there, not that it matters.
On a busy street in this barely-city, (Terre Haute, in case you're curious), there's a little brick building. Graffiti covers the walls, and the large block windows. The only decoration (other than that provided by vandals, I mean) is a large globe light next to the door. There is, definitively, no sign.
If the light is on, which it usually is if it's the early afternoon and it's not Sunday, feel free to walk inside. If you do so (you should, by the way), you will find these things:
1) Formica tables, some messily stacked with paper towels, books, magazines.
2) Maps, seemingly scavenged from abandoned schools, depicting various continents - some attached, haphazardly, to the ceiling.
3) A man.
If he is not waiting on customers, the man will greet you and welcome you to Harry and Bud's. He will make some small talk with you. He'll ask if you want still water, or carbonated. He'll ask you if you'd rather listen to classical or jazz.
And then he will ask you what you would like to eat. No menu will be offered.
I have no idea how wide his repertoire expands, though I imagine it's vast. But my recommendation is that you do what I did, and simply ask him to serve you whatever he cares to make. He will smile, ask if there's anything you can't or won't eat (mushrooms, in my case), and then, pausing to give you a choice of soups, he will disappear into the back.
You will sit, perhaps making idle conversation with a dining partner. You will hear noises from the kitchen, and smell wonderful things. And, after about half an hour, the man will reappear, soup in hand. And then he will bring you your bread (French style, delicious). And then he will bring you the meal he has chosen to make you.
Two plates, piled high with an incredible variety of food. I can offer you my menu, in the knowledge that yours will almost certainly be different, depending on his mood: Salmon cakes covered in sharp aioli. Tender, thinly sliced pork loin. Roasted asparagus. Eggplant torte. Savory crepes. Snow peas. Shrimp.
The man will offer you plates to move this treasure trove to for consumption, and, when they arrive, they will (if you are as lucky as I was) be covered in delicious gnocchi. You will realize, that in this tiny brick building in small-town Indiana, you have been served a five-course meal that would not look (or taste) out of place in a quality restaurant in one of the great cities of the world. And the man will stand there, calmly proud, and ask you if he can bring you anything else.
You will not finish the food (not if your stomach is even vaguely human, I mean), but this is no worry - you will be cheerfully offered boxes to ferry it back home. You will be laden down like a frontier explorer, except instead of hardtack or salted beef, your saddlebags will be full of flavorful, healthy, delicious wonders.
This is before you are offered dessert, mind you.
And when you have finished this meal (as much as your body can manage, that is), and after your boxes and boxes of succulent leftovers have been tied up in bags for you, the man will name his price. There is no "check," no itemized bill. Every meal costs the same.
$20 per person.
And, setting down the days of food you are leaving with, you will reach into your wallet and pay him gladly. If you're smart (and even barely understand the concept of gratitude), you will tip, and tip well. And then you will stagger out the door.
You will find yourself once again in Terre Haute. The people on the streets will be just as drab, just as beaten by life as they were when you went in. The building behind you will seem as unassuming and silent as before. But you will be buoyed by the knowledge that there are still secrets in the world worth knowing. Mysteries that reward the solver. And kind men and treasures hiding behind blank walls. The knowledge will, hopefully, be of some comfort.
The full stomach will probably help, too.