On Sunday morning, I left Oakland behind for a taste of the Delta's summer abundance. It reminded me of the most delicious thing about a roadtrip: the flavors that grace us in passing. A slow dinner, a quick snack, or nibble of dried fruit imprint a taste to the landscape even as the path beckons.
I don't know about you, but I usually don't bother or remember to pack forks or spoons. I'm pretty happy eating kamayan, or eating with the hands. It only adds to the visceral experience of eating, just like the lips, mouth, and even sense of hearing and sight also partake in a meal.
We stand on the levees,then put our feet in the cool water, surrounded by tule reeds, bamboo, and cornfields that stretch green into the horizon. Thickets of California blackberry hang heavy with fruit. I reach greedily for the fattest, darkest berries, which seem to be guarded by huge spiders and thick webs clotted with insects. Tiny thorns prick at my ankles and shins, sharp as a kitten's claws. Its a blood exchange for the gooshy, sun-ripened berries that stains my fingers and hands purple. I save the best in a cup, eat the rest out of hand.
From the green fields emerges the small town of Isleton. Live funk music and the smell of seafood waft out of Isleton Joe's restaurant. Outdoor tables are packed with folks chowing down on bowls full of fresh crawfish, the restaurant's specialty and fresh catch from the region formerly dubbed "Crawdad Town USA."
Taking a cue from our neighbors, I order a 2-lb bowl. But when the metal bowl arrives, overflowing with supernaturally red crustaceans doused in hot sauce, I almost panic. I can eat shrimp heads and fish eyes without hesitation. But these small creatures came without instructions, their shells tough as lobsters and almost too hot to handle. Where to begin?
After 10 minutes of struggle, a friendly fellow diner comes to the rescue. "I grew up in New Orleans," he explains, "I was watching you eat and couldn't take it anymore." Crawfish in hand, he demonstrates how to twist the tail, and then suck out the salty-sweet tail meat. Ah-ha.
It takes nearly an hour to work through the bowl, twice as slow as the skilled diners next to us who are onto their second order of crawfish and third round of Coronas. My mouth and fingers burn from the chili sauce and my hands have slowed down. But there's no rush. It feels like those family gathering in the Philippines, the ones where a slow meal stretches out into an entire afternoon.
Returning to Oakland, I know my hands will carry the tingling stain of red chili sauce and purple berry juice, just as my feet are dusted with fine silt from walking along the water. If the water alone doesn't call me back soon, the tastes of the Delta will.