I walked out of the apartment building this morning to find the city engulfed in a full-blown white-out. Hailing from the Frozen North myself, I often find DC residents’ perennial squeamishness about winter weather unfounded and take every opportunity to poke fun at their squirrel-like hoarding tendencies before snow showers. But today’s high winds and blowing snow would humble even the most weather-worn Minnesotan. Nevertheless, I decided to trundle the two blocks to the nearest coffee shop for something sweet and warming.
Unsurprisingly, the cafe turned out to be closed. Another brave soul had ventured out in hopes of procuring the turtle mocha that had appeared to him in a waking dream. Emboldened by each other’s company, IT technician Brett and I made our way through the deserted streets in search of fresh java. We found it at an Au Bon Pain two blocks down the street. Clearly the storm had not daunted the man I presumed to be the store’s manager, a friendly immigrant from East Africa. (Not much snow there…seems like it’s time for the rest of us to suck it up!)
Au Bon Pain doesn’t serve turtle mochas, so Brett ordered a caramel macchiato and put chocolate sauce in his oatmeal as a consolation. “The diet’s going out the window today,” he observed sheepishly as he sat down across from me, “Please don’t judge me for this! Everything in moderation, right?” Precisely: my theory is that a little chocolate each day keeps us happy, which in turn keeps us healthy, as well.
As it happened. Brett’s scale told him today that he has officially lost 20 pounds since changing his eating habits one year ago. He had been eating out every day, for every meal, and had realized that his diet was becoming unsustainable both financially and health-wise. He stopped drinking, began cooking more at home, and rediscovered his passion for something he used to love. Apparently, Brett had spent four years cooking at a Mexican restaurant and was about to be promoted to sous-chef when he decided to go back to college and follow a different life path. “I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I had taken that job,” he said, sounding more curious than wistful.
He went on to tell me about the green chili burritos he grew up eating at a place called Zantigo’s in Columbus, Ohio. He never ordered anything else on the menu. The restaurant was bought out years ago, but there are still a few locations left in–where else?–the Twin Cities, where I grew up. For his birthday a couple of years ago, Brett’s sister arranged with one of those stores to freeze-dry and ship a 10-lb. case of green chili burrito filling to him in Washington, DC. “Smell is the sense most closely connected with memory,” Brett reminded me, “and when I thawed it out and opened the bag, it was like I was a kid again. It tasted exactly the same.”
I finished my coffee and said goodbye to my new friend, who I never expect to see again. Shuffling my way back to the apartment while trying to shield my face from the biting winds, I thought about how much more I had enjoyed that coffee than the cups of it I drink alone, and about how what was supposed to be a simple two-block scurry out and back in had turned into an adventure and a chance to connect with someone I would, under normal circumstances, never have exchanged more than a “hello” with. Our talk of food brought up discussions of childhood, of home, of career choices, of life-changing decisions and personal goals. Writing this blog keeps me on the lookout for moments like this, and shows me that they are far more numerous than I had ever realized. I’m curious to learn whether others care to share any serendipitous encounters motivated by or revolving around food?