A Story of Houston Food
I’ve been away, as many of you know, happy to share the kids’ school break and happier still to help Verne pack up what’s left of our Houstonian existence and ship it to Pondicherry.
What you may not have known, what I think none of us really ever knows in transitions such as these, is with what precise words to express the jumble of feelings that invariably arise in between the joy of the present and the certainty of departure. There is much that binds us still to H-town–very dear friendships, work, just plain old love and comfort and familiarity–but the property ties are gone now, so returns will have to be of a different character and there’s simply no denying that. Hence the need this time for a vocabulary of loss–which I found in three parts: a word, a visual collage, and a song.
The Word: Saudade
Saudade. The Portugese word came to me as my very special student-friend (with the always superlatively great hair) Monica and I stumbled upon Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward, one of the city’s older African-American neighborhoods (after a very fun lunch at Doshi House, stories about which will follow soon). It’s crazy, but all those years and I’d never been to PRH, so I took it as a special sign that my quest to find the new and innovative Indian eateries in town naturally lead me both to the city’s telling of its own stories, and to the vocabulary to narrate my own.
“The love that remains.” A melancholic incompleteness. The lingering sense of a life once lived. The knowledge that one would have the smells of the air, or the sound of the city, or the warmth of the sun on a crisp, bright Houston fall day for only so long and no longer. The impossibility of bottling all these up and keeping them preserved. That sense that traces and fragments and stolen-away artifacts were all that would remain to love.
[And steal them I did: this time back, I think I had more spices and edibles, masa harina and anchovies, than even clothes in my luggage. Had to leave poppy seeds behind though, damn the regulations of flying through Dubai.]
The collage: Chef Chris Shepherd's Underbelly
It took us a while to get to Underbelly on Westheimer, and when we did it was for a quick lunch before the next round of errands, sorting, organizing, packing, and clearing. The restaurant claims to tell “the story of Houston food,” somehow linking the “endless array of ingredients and cultures” that characterize this bustling port city into a singularly rich creole. Much as I like the concept, I know the place is not for those of us who don’t ordinarily have wine with meals and whose taste for butchery is limited to the very rare (but well done) steak or burger indulgence. Much as I’ve personally and professionally questioned the multiculturalist premise that “I” must per force be represented in the literature I read, I was truly surprised to find Underbelly had no engagement with Indian ingredients–though it’s well-near impossible to imagine the city without its massive, unavoidable Indian presence and influences. What gives?
But the visual and culinary ideas of collage we found there appealed deeply; what a beautiful idea to narrate the story of Houston though its foods and food traditions, and to set up a community table where all could come and sit with strangers and share. So Underbelly’s story was incomplete. Wasn’t it up to us to complete it anyway?
So here, inspired by Underbelly’s culinary and visual collage, is our collage–of this visit, of our love of Houston’s lively culinary offerings, of our favorites and must-visits and new adventures. [Click on the images to get to larger versions and more detail on Pâticheri's Flickr photostream.]
The song: "Tonight you belong to me"
Finally, the song. Years ago, my sweet librarian sister singer taught me this little number from the movie The Jerk, starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, though I confess its meaning wasn’t at all clear to me until it was time to leave Houston. And then I think I finally got it. That our time anywhere is really just that short; that we can’t take it with us–but for just a brief tonight, the perfect emerald green of the Pacific ocean, or the awesome proportions of the Andes, or the pause of a Sunday morning before life calls us this way or that, is wholly and undeniably ours.
Our recording is far from perfect, though it speaks to the moment that precedes and precipitates saudade. And when it’s time to let go, it’s good to do so with the affected melancholy of the inimitable kazoo.
Take one devolved into laughter because the younger of my two was in a temper and interrupting. Take two completes the song, against the odds.
Merry Christmas, all.