As I was crossing the John Jay Byrne Bridge over Newtown Creek into Queens, I finished my second donut from Peter Pan and added it to my list of “best things I ate this year.” The details of where exactly I was eating this donut, soaked with maple syrup a quarter-inch into the crust, oily and warm, is essential — because it was an overcast afternoon, the bridge and creek ugly; I was alone, cold, squinting into traffic; it was so delicious because the city seemed so oppressive and unforgiving. Three of the ten best things I ate this year are donuts, which is perhaps unsurprising given how many donuts I eat every day. But instead of reviewing the best, which risks the kind of sappy food-gazing given voice at the end of Boyhood (‘you don’t seize the moment, moments seize you!), it might be more revealing to ask, what were the worst things I ate this year?
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The first worst thing I ate this year was a marshmallow popcorn confection shaped like a giant ear of corn. I was sitting at my desk and took a bite off the tip. It was chewy and coated with caramel that stuck to my tongue and gums. I think it was a quarter-pounder.
The second worst thing I ate this year was a slice from Brick Oven Pizza that had a long black hair curled under a piece of pepperoni. I unwound it and flicked it onto the floor and ate the pizza, which tasted like a house fire.
The third worst thing I ate this year was a meatball grinder from Pizza House. It came on a paper plate and dripped cheap cheese grease from its squashed edges. Also qualifies as the ninth best thing I ate this year, tied with a horse steak in Zurich that came raw on a smoking hot stone.
The fourth worst thing I ate this year was a Boar’s Head Genoa salami sandwich on Martin’s potato bread. The salami had gone bad, slightly — bad enough to know that it wasn’t right after the first bite, but not so rotten that I stopped. By the fourth bite, the bitter, rank odor of spoiled lunchmeat had coated the inside of my mouth. I stopped.
The fifth worst thing I ate this year was a cookie dough blizzard from Dairy Queen. They always make them with a chocolate base when all I want is vanilla. If anyone would ever make me a cookie dough blizzard with pure, snowy vanilla soft serve, it would easily make the “best things I ate this year” list.
The sixth worst thing I ate this year was a scoop of blueberry cheesecake ice cream at a liquor store in rural Connecticut. It was freezer-burned.
The seventh worst thing I ate this year was a chili pepper paste at a rijsttafel in Amsterdam. The owner of the restaurant told me that Anthony Bourdain cried when he ate it. I did not cry, because I am a man, but I did spend the next three days on the toilet. During those trying days I went to the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels to see the Fall of Icarus, and I ate a waffle. Note: the pepper paste did not cause the GI distress, though it probably exacerbated it. I suspect a spread of raw herring at a beer hall in Cologne.
The eighth worst thing I ate this year was a bowl of mush. I had a carton of cornmeal leftover from a muffin extravaganza, ran out of oatmeal, and decided to eat mush for breakfast until I finished the box. With raisins, maple syrup, and cream, mush can be delightful. Objectively, however, it’s still mush.
The ninth worst thing I ate this year was a dog treat from a bag I found in my parents’ pantry. The bag was stenciled with a pig. It could have passed as packaging for a small-batch, artisanal pork nugget snack. Human treats. Reward yourself for that bonus.
“But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”
“He quit his job at Pepsi-Cola and opened a mayonnaise shoppe in Williamsburg.”
I mean, he lived happily ever after. So I was very confused by the bag and tried a small-batch, artisanal, pork nugget dog-treat snack. It was vile, but our dog enjoys them so I won’t judge.
The tenth worst thing I ate this year was a mixture of cigarette butts and excrement swallowed while diving in a public toilet for a heroine suppository. Or maybe that was a scene in Trainspotting. Let me try again. The tenth worst thing I ate this year was a can of Dole peaches in syrup. I was disappointed because I remembered peaches in syrup fondly from my childhood but felt nothing when I ate them.
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2014 was a good year in eating, too. I ate a lot of eggs, pancakes, meatball grinders, zapiekanki, pork knuckle, peanut butter, mushrooms, fried fish, and white asparagus. If you visit Bavaria in April, you’ll find the white asparagus grows thicker and sweeter than anywhere else. Dressed with clarified butter, there’s nothing finer than thick, sweet, white asparagus. The best fish and chips I’ve ever had is at the Magdalen (mawd-lin) Arms in Oxford. Mushrooms: morels sautéed and stewed with cream over chicken breast. Lunch three times a week, toasted PB sandwiches. Again, in Bavaria, Schweinshaxe, inhaled with draughts of fresh beer. Zapiekanki, Poland’s glorified pizza bagelette. The aforementioned grinders. I like to drive along I-95 and take a random exit to look for an IHOP, sit alone in a booth drinking pots of coffee and eating stacks of Harvest Grain ‘n Nut pancakes with butter and brown syrup. And poached eggs, sabayon, caviar, green asparagus, watercress sauce.
I hate to dwell on the negative but I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to contemplate the worst things eaten alongside the best. At least when I approach the problem with rigorous honesty, they’re tricky to tell apart. In 2014, how is it that we — this mysterious collective of young people so celebrated, interrogated, intro- and extro-spected on the webpages of legacy media — eat? Towards the middle, from the extremes; producing greater poverty and inequality in our wake; shrilly, stridently; in self-satisfying gulps; hypocritically, uncritically; joylessly. I resolve to eat: more donuts on bridges, more jerky snacks, quietly, at home, in my beater on the highway, unpantsed on a public toilet, in barbershops and prisons, surrounded by animals and plants. Then I could answer two questions raised by this year’s third best-worst movie (the first being Boyhood, the second Trainspotting), Interstellar: is Nature evil? And is love gravity, the fifth-dimension, or both?