Some meals are memorable, some meals are important, some meals become a tradition, some meals feed your soul and some meals can save a life. Some meals are all of this.
My most memorable meal? Most important? What has become a tradition and feeds my soul? What is the meal that I feel saved my life?
A grilled Swiss cheese sandwich and a side of fries with gravy.
This was the meal I arbitrarily ordered when I made an unplanned stop into an open diner on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, New York, around 5 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sept. 11 every year, even 18 years later, I am transported back in time to when I hopped off my commuter train in Pennsylvania Station and, since it was such a beautiful day, walked to my office on East 53rd Street in Manhattan. The sky was the most splendid crystalline blue, dotted with white puffy clouds and a slight breeze with a lingering summer heat. It was too nice out to take the subway.
Once at work, I settled into my day and chatted on the phone with a girlfriend before I started work while sending a few “good morning” instant messages to my sister who also worked in the city. After awhile, my friend said, “I think something happened” just as my phone began ringing off the hook.
I won’t go into the details of the plane crashes or the towers falling. We all have our deeply seeded memories that are personal to us, but I will say that after the initial disorientation that I can only imagine accompanies an unimaginable tragedy, survival kicked in. I marched into my boss’ office, saw the disaster unfold and then in automoton-like voice said, “My sister works in the World Trade Center. I need to get down there and find her.” The streets were closed to downtown so I did the next best thing and somehow found the only other family member who worked in the city, my sister’s husband and my brother-in-law.
The day was as long as it was short. My brother-in-law and I spent hours reassuring each other that my sister was scrappy and resilient and most assuredly left the building even after seeing her building fall and knowing her office was on the 84th floor. Her building, which was hit second, fell first. Through it all, we kept repeating that she probably had her sneakers on and made it out.
It was a mentally exhausting day, and somehow, through a patchwork of pay phones and landlines, we found out she escaped. We told her to meet us at a point on the Upper East Side. She walked the entire way.
That time between 9 a.m. and when I finally saw my sister took forever. When we saw my sister we introduced her to what had happened because she hadn’t seen the news, she was in the news. With subways and trains not running, we decided we would probably stay in the city, maybe sleep in my office building or at a hotel. The hotels were handing out free drinks in their lobbies and we gladly took the drinks as we tried to make sense of the day. Then, we got word, a subway opened and there was limited train service. We could get home.
While our lives were irrevocably changed that day we realized, as we made our way to the only open subway station, that remarkably we were hungry. Just then we stumbled upon a diner that was actually making and serving food.
We needed to have fellowship with one another and a thanksgiving for my sister’s life. We needed to talk and we needed to be comforted.
We decided on grilled cheese and fries with gravy. It simultaneously tasted like nothing and tasted like everything. It filled the pit that was growing in our stomachs. The pit was the uncertainty of what was to come and the pain we would continue to endure.
And as we took the train home, we looked backwards out the window to where the towers stood and saw the two huge pillars of smoke extend into the sky.
It may seem trite to say that a grilled cheese sandwich saved my life and while I didn’t realize it then, I realize it now. I wasn’t in the towers, but like everyone else, my life changed that day. My trajectory changed. That simple sandwich and fries fed my heart and gave me strength. While I don’t eat that meal every year I remember those moments in the diner more clearly than the timeline that unfolded that day. I remember that meal as vividly as the blue skies and the perfect day. That diner was a small oasis in the city. The dinner became a small bandage on my heart and a bit of happiness amidst tragedy.
9/11 is now history but it is a day I will never forget.
Lisa Sweet writes about food for the Leavenworth Times. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org