Memory is a shifty character. For the most part, we have little control over why some experiences slip away while others remain alive for decades.
Consider food memories. In my capacity as food writer and restaurant critic over the past 25 years, I have dined out more than 4,000 times, give or take a few dozen street vendor hot dogs. Clearly, one man's cognitive refrigerator cannot store so many victuals. Consequently, I have always found it difficult to answer the question (and I am asked it incessantly), "What is the best meal you ever had?"
Recently, though, I decided to take up the challenge. I spent days scanning my old restaurant reviews, revisiting dozens of meals on the miles-long professional buffet. I flagged 30 stellar finalists—then changed my mind about half of them. I soon realized I had to expand my search from "best meal" to "best dining experience," because a great dinner isn't just about a procession of plates. The more you bring into a dining room—your appetite, your curiosity, your companions—the more you'll take away from it.
I considered my dinner at the legendary Taillevent, in Paris, which began with beluga caviar and Dom Pérignon and progressed to foie gras terrine, custard-stuffed squash blossoms, and an astounding tarragon-infused fricassee of fresh cod that I have tried and failed to re-create many times. I recalled an all-seafood dinner at Le Bernardin, in Manhattan, where I first tasted sea urchin roe, so delicate and briny it was like dunking your head under an ocean wave. I remembered the many incredible pastas I consumed in rustic, family-run trattorias in northern Italy. Great reminiscences and meals, all; still, I had a feeling something was missing.
Then a quote came to mind, something I had read some 30 years before. It was from the late New Yorker editor and writer Clifton Fadiman: "When one is young and has little money, it is prudent to spend that little on the unnecessary, the emotional dividends being higher."
Sure enough, this advice held the key. The moment I stopped dissecting all of those expense account spreads, there it was, the trophy winner, right in front of my nose all along.