I'm fairly certain that the chefs did not actually intend to kill me, but the way my stomach is roiling and listing right now, it doesn't actually matter. If I'd stopped after the first dinner — the way a non-Hobbit creature is meant to — I'd have been pleasantly, but reasonably stuffed, but our hosts are telling us to wind down and gear back up for stop #2 on this trenchermans' tour of the North Carolina Triangle. I'm an eating pro, I remind myself, and I'm truly grateful for the opportunity to be one (beats the hell outta pushing buttons at the sprocket factory — or just about any other job on earth), but tonight, there are diminishing returns. I feel like a heel, just picking at the thoughtfully-prepared, locally-sourced, no doubt madly delicious dishes in front of me, but I'm genuinely terrified that I'm facing a Mr. Creosote moment if I put so much as one more wafer-thin morsel in my mouth. (And yes, Fernet counts.) I pound seltzer, make sure someone takes all the leftovers home (Catholic guilt is a side dish at all my meals), and make a solemn vow to myself that I will never go on another multi-stop media invite dinner again. I'm just not built for it.
Perhaps my greatest joy is the thrill of the meal hunt.
It's an anomaly for me, anyway — letting my dining fate fall completely out of my grasp. I travel almost comically often, for work, family, and fun (and especially frequently for someone who would categorize herself as "mildly agoraphobic"), and perhaps my greatest joy, next to silent, squishy-pillowed hotel rooms, is the thrill of the meal hunt. I'm good at it, too. It's a time-honed blend of obsessive research, trusted local sources, social media karma, adventurous spirit, intuition, patience, dumb luck, and a few ringers. While they're not all winners (WTF, escargot rangoon?!), my on-the-road great:meh meal average is about 7:1.
Here’s how I get where I need to go:
In Vegas, which I hit multiple times in 2015, I fall face-first into the excess. Not necessarily in terms of consumption (and it's surprisingly easy to eat semi-lightly if you stick with seafood and ludicrous salads), but with the massive fever-dream, casino-subsidized eatporiums helmed largely by name chefs with skin in the game. I stick to the Strip for this year's brief visits and find myself tearing up eating Matt Merges's caramelized and seasonal kimchi at Yusho, and again at Joël Robuchon while spooning glass-clear gelee that tastes of the platonic ideal of tomato.
I am saved from ironic self-sabotage on my birthday when Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen tells me that I may not stop in for a dessert after 11 (plus there's a wait). I save the dice-rolling for a solo trip to Tunica, Mississippi, where I venture forth from the casino cluster and am drawn to the buffet of Delta classics at the Blue & White Restaurant (est. 1924) — partly because the Twitter hive mind seems to give it a thumbs-up for authenticity, and partly because my go-to restaurant at the Tunica Roadhouse is apparently closed for a gender reveal party. I'm a tiny bit mortified that I may have made some animalistic happy sounds while scraping down fried green tomatoes, stewed okra, squash, turnip greens, and soup beans, but neighboring tables luckily seem too lost in their own bliss to care.
In Charleston, I cling to Bill Addison's pant leg because the man 1. knows what's what and 2. is excellent company, and he leads us to Addielee's where we are smothered in an avalanche of gravied pork chops, oxtails, stewed lima beans, and mac 'n' cheese. We eat key lime cake with our fingers in the car, and I stick with oysters and thin slices of local ham for the rest of the trip both because nothing will top that and because they taste unmistakably of where they're from. Atlanta's pleasures ping-pong between handcrafted corn dogs and booze-kicked milkshakes at Palookaville and culty pastas at BoccaLupo. I swarm in with a passel of chefs and I do believe we order every single one of them.
I start out alone at Beast, Clyde Common, and Little Bird in Portland, and end up making friends at each (presumably they don't mind the noises? Maybe it's the communal seating, or just the Portlandia of it all), but am felled by a panic attack my last night there and stick to the sleek, dark, calming Driftwood Room at my hotel — which just by chance has a campy, Champagne-centric cocktail menu that hits all my buttons.
In New Orleans, it's a cautious balance between indulgence and sanity, familiarity and adventure. Lunch (trout amandine, soufflé potatoes, Godchaux salad, brandy-bourbon milk punch, cafe brulot) at Galatoire's has become a tradition for my husband and me, never surprising (their decades-old stalwart clientele would likely riot if they dared change a single dish or staffer), yet always thoroughly satisfying and boozy. But Shaya's modern Israeli menu shocks me awake — food cooked in a tongue that I suddenly, desperately need to become fluent in. On the advice of NOLA expats, we venture into Bar Tonique, and on a whim I ask Will the bartender to make whatever mezcal concoction he feels like. The "white negroni" he crafts on the fly is the best thing I drink all year. Back home in Brooklyn, I live on kale salads and water until I feel human again.
But for the last big meal of 2015, it's the Triangle that draws me back in. I almost have to laugh at the inevitability of it — not just because the restaurant is called Death & Taxes, but because it's an Ashley Christensen place, and any time I eat her food, the meal ranks in my top five for the year. I may pride myself on my spirit of abandon and adventure, but if she's cooking, I fall right in line. At the end of a Christmas visit with the in-laws, I book an extra day to drive to Raleigh with my husband so we can sit down, ease in, order the aged steak, greens in country ham vinaigrette, and foraged mushrooms I've been dreaming about since that first chaotic meal. We savor it all. We take our time.