I love to cook. This cannot be a surprise to anyone who has visited this website more than once. Still, it’s worth stating. I love the process of cooking. I love the smells that arise from below me as I cut and sliver and sautée. I love the sight of a knife slicing into a tomato, a leek starting to soften in a skillet, a soft cheese clinging to the utensil that holds it. I love the sounds: sizzling, dripping, splattering, burbling. I love the texture of silky olive oil on the tongue and the rough-hewn feeling of meat crumbled into a pan. And the tastes? Well, that should be fairly obvious by now. Here I am.
For the past year, I have been chopping meditatively, rocking my knife through winter vegetables and waiting for the spring to eat fresh fruit again. Cooking has become so deep a part of my day — a place without words, primal and alive — that by four pm, when I’m headed home from work, my fingers actually start itching to be in the kitchen again. I cannot imagine a better evening than one in which I’m standing at the stove, laughing at stories with someone I love nearby.
However, there are nights when the kitchen does not call me. When a quick bite appeals to me instead. Evenings when — hard to imagine it — something other than food shouts for attention.
Last night was one of those nights.
This evening, just when I returned from work, my friend Quinn arrived on my doorstep. We started talking fast and moving out the door, down the steps, across the street, toward the other end of the block — to Malena’s Tacos.
Just because I didn’t cook doesn’t mean the evening was devoid of food.
Malena’s is one of my favorite little places in the world. These days, I don’t eat in restaurants that often. It’s not because I’m afraid of growing sick, so much — I seem to have figured out how to make my way through the dining-out experience with safety. Instead, I’ve learned how to cook food in my kitchen — with the freshest ingredients, in season, grown locally — that tastes better to me than most restaurant food I eat. I don’t want to waste my money on a meal I could have easily made at home, and for half the price.
Instead, I only eat in a restaurant when I know the food will be extraordinary. Or, when I can eat a cuisine I haven’t learned to make in my kitchen yet. Outrageously good Thai food. Delicate, kick-in-the-pants Vietnamese food. A veggie combo platter at an Ethiopian restaurant. Sushi.
Now, I could probably learn to make asada tacos, but they just wouldn’t taste as good as they do at Malena’s. The women in the twenty-foot-square storefront have been flipping tortillas and grilling peppers for years longer than I have. And since they use corn tortillas for almost everything, and I can watch them cooking on the grill in front of me, I feel assured eating there, at one of the tiny tables with the wobbly legs. They bring salty corn chips, made on the premises, in a red plastic basket with red-and-white checked paper, like the kind in which fish and chips might arrive in a bar. The salsa bites the tongue, then dances around it lightly. Not aggreessive to the point of pain, but also not so bland as to disappear. Smooth, like a real sauce, instead of the American-salsa-in-a-bottle, with chewy chunks of pale tomatoes floating in a light liquid. This one is dark red. It means business. Order a side of fresh-made guacamole and you have corn chip heaven: green softness that clings to the chip, then a splash of salsa. Ah.
Last night, I ordered the asada tacos: chunks of tender beef, seared, with onions, little tomatoes, salsa, guacamole, and fresh cilantro. I try to order something different every time I go in, but I always end up with those tacos again. Quinn had a pork burrito with guacamole, and he seemed happy. It certainly disappeared quickly. We talked about food, of course. He had just been to Vancouver with his girlfriend, and they had eaten some magical substance: hot frites with cheese curds on top, then beef sauce poured over it all. Ay god, I wanted some immediately, even with those lovely tacos in my hand. There were discussions of wine, bad art, broken-down cars, promising second dates, upcoming events, and the students we shared. Time always passes quickly with Quinn.
We could have kept talking, but at the end of our meal, Quinn looked at me, and said, “Well, let’s go climb on that big bad motorbike.”
You see, Quinn has a motorcycle. He may be a fourth-grade math teacher, so one might think him geeky intelligent. (Super sharp, this man is. Ridiculously so.) But if you know Quinn for two minutes, you know he’s a lot more complex than that. For example, he has a motorcycle. A few years ago, he had another one, a lovely Virago, with not as much power, and a slightly smaller seat. I had ridden it then — the only time I had been on one — squealing with delight on every street. But that was on a December day, and the wind nearly sheared off my cheeks on the ride. Now, Quinn has traded that one in, for an Italian lovely beast of a motorcycle, named Francesca. Francesca has a tall windscreen in front, enough power to obviate the need to use fifth gear on the freeway, and a capacious seat, big enough for two.
Since these early days of May in Seattle have been idyllic — high blue skies, light that could break your heart with its beauty, light until 9 pm — Quinn and I had decided. We needed to go for a ride at twilight.
As I strapped on the thick white helmet Quinn had handed me, and slid on my largest sunglasses to prevent the wind from drying out my contacts, Quinn told me: “The only way to do this is to relax. Hold on to me, but relax, like it’s a Zen exercise.” I can do that. And so, I threw my leg over the seat, sat back, flung my arms around Quinn, and readied myself.
And we were off.
A vibration between my legs, the rattle of wheels on the road, the wind against my shins — mostly, the beautiful, frightening roar as we thrummed down the street. Quinn pointed the bike straight down my street, racing past the houses with trim lawns and white picket fences, hurtling toward the stop sign. We turned, then turned again, until we were riding into the golden light of the seven pm sun. Turn left, and our bodies were swaying with the curve of the old boulevard, the enormous houses giving way to a small stone wall. Beyond it, the blue of Puget Sound, stretched out before us. Ferries chugging to the islands. A cluster of sailboats huddled in the harbor. All that blue water, the sky enormous and wide. I just giggled and giggled.
Then, we roared past Kerry Park, the skyline-of-Seattle view they use in all the postcards, Mount Rainier so enormous and white, half the size of the sky, that it looked as though someone had painted a backdrop to try and fool us. In a buzz and flurry, I saw it pass us, like a dream.
Suddenly, we were headed down Queen Anne Avenue, the hill so steep and towering that neighborhood teenagers grab their sleds at the first sign of a major snow and hurtle down to the bottom, to terrifying stop, until the cops come to close down the hill. It’s the hill that buses jacknife down, then skid the rest of the way until they can go no longer, when the roads ice up and Seattle traffic is at a standstill. But last night, the sun shone as warm as an apple pie just out of the oven, and we were racing down the hill, my laugh trailing behind me the entire way.
I could hardly talk for giggling with glee.
Quinn wound us around the city streets until we reached Alaska Way, along the blue, inviting waters of downtown. I wanted to wave to all the tourists. I wanted to shout to everyone: “What are you doing walking when you could be on one of these?” I wanted to throw my fists into the air and exult at the freedom of it all. But I also really didn’t want to let go of Quinn, for fear I might fall off. I simply imagined it all.
Quick turns. Up to Pioneer Square. Elliott Bay bookstore. Safeco Field (hi Kenji!). Blue sky. Warm air. My friend’s body a windblock. And all was fine with the world.
Without warning, Quinn pointed the bike toward the on-ramp of 99, the highway that rises to the level of the tall stories of the buildings downtown. The viaduct that opens out to the vista of blue water, dark-green islands, and the craggy peaks of the Olympic mountains. At that moment, the sun had just set behind the mountains, so they glimmered light lavender, the sky above them pale orange. Purple mountains majesty, indeed. Never have I seen that view with nothing blocking it. I felt entirely part of it all, just one connection in a world alive and thriving.
As he revved up the engine, faster and faster, until we were going nearly 70 on the freeway, I squealed a long, loud shriek. My sunglasses kept slipping, and I kept jamming my nose against Quinn’s shoulder, so I could scrunch them up my nose and not lose them. I could have felt scared. After the car accident I had two years ago, you might expect that I would have been quaking.
But somehow, I did feel utterly relaxed. I’m no daredevil, but I trust my friend. And once I made the choice to swing my leg over the motorcycle, I had to accept it. No fear. Just experience. Living, fully alive, in the moment, squealing with laughter, talking with Quinn over the sound of the wind in our ears.
Finally, we powered up that hill. These last few weeks, I have been riding the bus everywhere, since my car died, and I haven’t found another one yet. Up this hill, the bus lurches and shudders, crawling up the inevitable incline. On the motorcyle, it felt good to flatten the road with our tires and arrive faster than anyone else.
One final roar down the road, the sunlight fading to my left, the motorcycle familiar under my legs. Home. As I took off my helmet, I said, “I’m a changed woman.”
As Quinn likes to say, “There is no day so good or so bad that it couldn’t be better with a motorcycle ride.” Now, I know what he means.
And at my house, waiting for us, a bottle of Chianti, some luscious chocolate cherries, and a video made by Rowan Atkinson, demonstrating the joys of physical comedy. What more could a girl want?
I guess some things are worth giving up an evening in front of the stove.
Malena’s Taco Shop
620 W Mcgraw St
Seattle, WA 98119–2837