bites of life

small bites

Ramen: a love story

I had never heard of a polar vortex. I didn’t know it could actually get this cold. But, here I was, unpacking my boxes in negative fourteen degrees, cursing myself for running back to the city I had once loved, my college sweetheart, Boston. The city that was now giving me a powerful cold shoulder. I needed an escape from the long, cold weeks of midwinter. I needed something to keep me warm during the longer, colder, nights.

The buttoned-up city of Boston had no idea that once a week, on Friday nights, there was a hotel bar serving 100 bowls of ramen at midnight. It started with a cardboard sign, three items, put out at eleven. Eventually there was a menu. The hostess started taking names at the door. But, an air of mystery remained. People who had lived in the city all their lives had no idea that this rich tradition was simmering behind a set of closed doors on Mass Ave.

I would leave work late and sneak out into the February cold, craving the comforting scent of woodsmoke and miso. Under dim lights, I would snuggle up to the bar, where all of the men knew my drink. The cinnamon-scented whiskey cocktail would warm me from the inside out, loosen me up just a little bit before midnight struck. Then, the noodles would arrive; curvaceous and chewy, coated in the rich fat of broth simmered on the back burner for days, cloudy and viscous, warming and salty and just slightly earthy. It was all topped with unctuous pork or a fleshy orange slice of winter squash. I would run my fingers over the raised paint on the red-patterned rim of the bowl as I slid it towards me, inhaling the rich scent. Sometimes the aroma would stay in my hair through the next morning, as I stood on icy wood floor of my under-heated bedroom and dressed in the dim light of the winter dawn.

As winter brightened into spring, the initial seduction of steamy broth and a belly full of noodles deepened into something more. I started to tell my friends, who all wanted to come. I was always nervous: What if they didn’t like it? Would they say it was bad for me, this late-night affair? Would they think the drinks come on too strong? Would they tell me the flavors were too deep? Friday nights had a rotating roster of guests, but I always knew I would be at ramen. I learned the bartenders names; James even mentioned his wedding cocktails—and let me try them.

By late September the world began to take on the sunset hues of autumn. The cobblestones shimmered as they exhaled the summer heat, and I brought Ryan. This would be our fourth date. Our first was wonderful. Our second, I-have-butterflies awkward. Our third, promising but incredibly disappointing. I needed to sit at that dark wooden bar, sniff out any possible future amidst the earthy, gingery scent of miso broth.

He met me outside, the evening unseasonably warm. He was sweaty, stiff postured, and polite. As we sat at the bar, I worried I had made a mistake. I wasn’t ready. I had a good thing going here, he was going to ruin it. Why would I bring someone else into this? James peered over his glasses as he slid me my drink. I took a few deep breaths, we both settled into our chairs. Our knees touched. Something he said made me laugh.

Ramen is designed to be slurped, the noodles sucked and folded into your mouth with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other. It is hair up, splatter on your collar, enthusiastic food. It is not flirty, not dainty, definitely not courtship food.

I dug in with hesitation, feeling unsure. “Don’t watch me” I gently hissed through a dangling noodle.

As I headed home, I felt full and warm beyond broth and noodles. I checked my phone to find a text: “That ramen was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. And I couldn’t not watch you eat it, it was adorable.”

I knew then that this was deeper than a bowl of soup.

Ariel KnoebelComment