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Sharing the table

A lifetime of making memories through meals

Food columnist Mark Saleeb
Food columnist Mark Saleeb (Photo courtesy of Mark Saleeb)
By Mark Saleeb CDN Contributor

“Commensality” is the practice of eating together. Many of my reviews end with an advocation for you to share a meal. This won’t be a typical restaurant review — more of a list of anecdotes, the times when I felt the most with someone else over a plate or bowl.

One of my earliest vivid memories — probably at the age of 3 or 4 — features a polystyrene takeout box of white rice and teriyaki chicken from the corner store that is now Elizabeth Station. My parents owned another corner store up Marine Drive and, as a treat, my dad would stop in at the station space after closing and come home bearing teriyaki. It wasn’t long before I started getting my own teeny-tiny bowl to dine alongside my dad.

My father taught me many, many things, and an appreciation for food is one of them. An Egyptian immigrant who found his first work dishing up lobster bisque and blackened chicken at the Bellingham Country Club, he never forgot those skills and recipes when my parents went into business ownership and added a couple of kids. My maternal grandmother passed on her recipe book to my mother — much stained, filled with notes, one of the few books my parents brought over when they moved to the U.S. I grew up eating home-cooked meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

photo  Mark Saleeb’s maternal grandmother passed on her recipe book to his mother — stained, filled with notes and one of the few books his parents brought over when they moved to the United States. (Photo courtesy of Mark Saleeb)  

On every family vacation, road trip and grocery run, we took opportunities to stop and split a dish or sample a few. And during every single one of those stops, I could see my dad chewing thoughtfully. 

In my teens, I outgrew the walls of my family home, solidly middle-class and comfortable. As I got my independence in the form of my driver’s license, my friends began to feature in my memories — bags of McDonald’s eaten by firelight, illicit cans of beer mounded around us, conversations about sports and cars that slowly ground around to whispers of high school flings and romances. We acted, or at least tried to act, on those feelings at the Lynden fair — sharing cubes of curly fries, foot-long corndogs — all to realize the greasy food might have been a bad idea as dizzy pairs stood in line for the Ferris wheel.

The night I installed my first lift kit (a county kid rite of passage), unforeseen problems led to us working until nearly 3 a.m. A Domino’s pizza ordered with numb, grease-stained fingers, shared on the hood of my truck, had never tasted so good. 

As we received our college admittance letters, casting my friends across the country, we started squeezing in visits to Denny’s and El Capitan’s as often as we could. Slurping coffee at 4 a.m., talking about classes and career goals, I couldn’t help but think these were moments worth remembering, to savor like bourbon rolled slowly across the tongue. 

These moments started coming faster. Cocktails at Calabash, a Caribbean restaurant in Vancouver, British, Columbia, with lingering hands and quickened pulse. On an overland trip to Alaska, stopped somewhere in the Yukon territory, I sat in a quiet roadside diner and ate a mountain of cod, washed down with a red ale. My satellite messenger was my only companion on that trip, but in that solitude, I shared every meal with the parts of myself I didn’t like, parts I sometimes was afraid of. We shook hands and I left him behind on the broad passes of the Brooks Mountains.

I broke a year of religious vegetarianism with a Patriot from El Capitan’s — an all-beef hot dog mounded with bacon — following a night of reckless drinking with my best friend, his attempt to help me move past a brutal breakup, like a scene from a rom-com. It shouldn’t have helped as much as it did, but my pained heart mended a bit that night. 

photo  Sitting in a booth at Barry’s Prime, in the glittering Circa Hotel in Las Vegas, Mark Saleeb enjoyed steak tartare with quail egg (pictured), filet mignon and crab-stuffed strips. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)  

Late-night slices of pizza from the Pye Hole with the girls who lived downstairs — one of whom would become my wife — serve as bleary bookends for the youthful abandon I was running through life with. Back at the dining table in my parent’s home, they’d “tsk” disapprovingly at my grades, my clothes and my weight loss. Foil-wrapped plates of baklava and falafel followed me home, with admonishments to visit more often. 

A few months pre-graduation, a gamble. I used my first-time home buyer loan with my friend, Sam, to buy a much-abused Roosevelt neighborhood home. Somehow this was cheaper than renting, but it still drained my meager bank account. Valentine’s Day dinner was canceled, replaced with takeout pizza and a promise that “this won’t happen again.” At the house — surrounded by stacks of trim, buckets of paint and bag after bag of trash — Sam and I ate Burrito King and wondered aloud at the absolute hellfire we’d stepped into.

On our honeymoon in Iceland, outside of Hvolsvöllur, my wife and I dined on fillet of cod and steak of horse; truly unforgettable, as it was our first proper meal in nearly three days.

Years on, we sold that rundown but much-improved house — making a tidy profit — and made good on the promise from that nearly forgotten Valentine’s Day. Better halves in hand, we headed straight to the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive and proceeded to eat like royalty. No rest for the wicked, as those funds were folded into another property — with it, a new taco truck to fuel our projects.

photo  On their honeymoon in Iceland, outside of Hvolsvöllur, Mark Saleeb and his wife dined on fillet of cod and steak of horse. “Truly unforgettable, as it was our first proper meal in nearly three days,” he said. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)  

Sitting in a booth at Barry’s Prime, in the glittering Circa Hotel in Las Vegas, we gained a taste of the high life. We weren’t rich, but for a week, we acted like we were. Crab-stuffed shrimp, tartare with quail egg, filet mignon. I felt a twinge of pride at that. After all, is this not what my parents chose to move here for? So that their children could get a taste of the American dream, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, lamp lifted beside a golden door.

Now: A two-top at Estelle. The server graciously lowers the blinds a touch — dad’s eyes are sensitive. I take the lead and order, steak frites and duck confit. We talk about everything except the elephant in the room. The tractor got delivered, you’ll have to come see it. How funny is it that your oncologist and surgeon are Egyptian, too? Oh yeah, I knew this place was opening a few weeks before they went public — insider knowledge, pop! 

The food arrives. The first bites are, as always, superb. I dig in, but slowly, as I see my dad isn’t really doing much more than picking at it. That little mass of uninvited cells in his pancreas took his appetite. The realization steals my breath. I can’t make him eat. So I describe every bite, I launch into a master’s thesis on the preparation of peppercorns and the rendering of duck fat. I make promises I can’t possibly keep — that we’ll come back when his surgeon clears him, that I’ll reserve a section in a future greenhouse for peppercorns, that I’m actually doing OK.

Acceptance. No sum of money will beat it, no Herculean labor can overcome the simple mathematics. Now, the focus is on quality of life. So we eat. Nothing is off-limits. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels mean nothing when your time is measured in months. We eat, and while we eat, we talk about the people, the places and the experiences that make up a life. I wish I had shared more meals at the table. I’m blessed to be able to do so for a little while longer. 

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