Novelists in Restaurants Eating Food

Credit: Roxane Gay

Radio Maria

A new series where we ask a novelist to eat in a restaurant, then write us something that meets two criteria: 1) it is a restaurant review; 2) it is not a restaurant review.

There are many reasons why I’m a control freak, but this tendency has really flared up over the past year. I blame my mother, who is extraordinarily fastidious, but this flare-up started with travel, which I do frequently, and hotels. Because I spend so much time in hotels, I began paying minute attention to everything about a hotel room, especially the bathroom. If anything was untoward or out of place, like a stray hair on the duvet cover, I obsessed and stayed up all night, afraid to let any part of my body touch the “contaminated” surfaces of the hotel room. I realize how this sounds.

At exactly the right time, I stumbled upon a popular website a person like me should never access, TripAdvisor, where you can learn everything you ever and never wanted to know about a hotel or any other aspect of travel. Before each trip, I scrutinized the comments and tried to gain as much insight as possible into where I would be laying my head. I have learned that people who comment online about hotels are my kind of crazy. The reviews are often elaborate and detailed, focusing on truly obscure aspects of a hotel stay. One such review spent a good deal of time discussing the small “tests” the reviewer deployed on the staff of a Los Angeles luxury hotel. For the most part, the staff rose to the challenge. 

If TripAdvisor doesn’t approve of a hotel, I quickly make alternative arrangements. A potential disaster was averted in Austin, Texas, I can tell you that much. I have arrived in at least three hotels this year, stepped into the room, smelled something off or felt a bit itchy, and simply checked out. This has been, I admit, strange, but it has also been somewhat exhilarating, to be unhappy with a circumstance and have the power to change it. I have been able to say, “This is not acceptable.” I have been able to stand up for myself, even if there is clearly an underlying issue involved. It has been wonderful to feel in control in circumstances, like travel, where control is, at best, an illusion.

I wish I could tell you more about the menu but I’m a vegetarian and a picky eater so when I go to any restaurant, I generally get the exact same thing each time.

I travel a lot but I live in central Illinois, a rural town. I am getting out of central Illinois. I am moving to Indiana, the northern part, I think. This is what they call a lateral move, at least geographically speaking. But for now I live in a very small town, so if I want to have a nice meal, there will be driving. The nearest town of size is Champaign-Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. It’s a nice town. There are movie theatres and a Target and a Chipotle and lots of chain restaurants and stores. There is no Apple store, but no place is perfect.

Many of my colleagues actually live up in Chambana, as the two cities are sometimes called. The schools are better, the housing options are better, and the commute to Charleston, where I live, isn’t so bad. I don’t live in Chambana because when I got my job, I moved to Charleston, not knowing any better, and then it seemed overwhelming, the idea of packing up and moving on down the road. That’s an elaborate way of acknowledging laziness and inertia and a fondness for complaining rather than problem solving.

In central Illinois, one of the key criteria for a favored restaurant is that it allows you to believe you are not in central Illinois. Certainly, it’s a pretense, but we engage that pretense as best we can. My point is, Radio Maria is my favorite restaurant in Champaign. The menu offers up seasonal fare with a Spanish twist. The ambiance is chic—original, local art on the walls, old doors covered with glass as tables, the panes of the doors filled with old Scrabble letters, playing cards, inscrutable phrases. The drink menu is extensive. The sangria is exceptional. There are tapas and tiny, elaborate salads where the dressing seems like a nice idea but is barely discernible on the leafy greens and frozen grapes and such. On weekends, they have dancing late into the night and people dress nicely for this dancing. There are women! In heels!

I wish I could tell you more about the menu but I’m a vegetarian and a picky eater so when I go to any restaurant, I generally get the exact same thing each time. The rest of the items on any given menu hardly exist to me. At Radio Maria, I get the torta maria—three layers of flour tortilla filled with butternut squash, corn, and poblano peppers. It’s topped with goat cheese and a little cilantro, and comes out of the oven bubbling hot, served with a vanilla-bean sauce and a salsa roja. Somehow, this dish works. I surprised myself when I realized I liked the flavor combinations, particularly because I don’t harbor an affinity for squash of any variety. 

My friends are so accustomed to my ordering this dish that they often tell the waiter, “She doesn’t need a menu,” and, well, they are right. I don’t need a menu. I like what I like and I am not trying to get adventurous where my digestive system is concerned. My internal ecosystem functions on a very delicate balance.

I love control but I also love surrender. I love the control of choosing surrender, of choosing to not determine the when, why, what, to not know what will happen next.

But: I am trying to be less of a control freak, both at home and when I travel. I am trying to broaden my culinary horizons. A friend and I went to Radio Maria in the middle of June on a perfect summer day, a goodbye dinner of sorts, a chance to catch up on gossip, to eat and drink. I was determined to go beyond my comfort zone so I studied the menu carefully. She got the torta maria, of course. I got a mushroom dish from the tapas menu that is hard to describe but is mostly mushrooms in some kind of sauce, with bread cubes and some kind of cheese. I paired it with fried ricotta balls covered in salsa roja. The mushrooms were good. I have, in fact, had them before. The ricotta balls were somewhat overdone, and a bit grainy on the tongue. I was not rewarded for my adventurousness but neither was I punished. Such is the nature of mediocrity. 

In the summer, I keep my apartment frigidly cold even though I am always cold. I enjoy shivering and knowing I have placed myself in this circumstance, knowing that if I wanted, I could change this circumstance. My skin is cold to the touch. As I lie on my couch, I tuck my toes beneath the cushion. I have to sit on my hands to warm my fingers.

Love is the hardest thing. To allow yourself to be in love, you have to surrender so much. You have to accept that your heart is a fuller piece of flesh with this other person in your life. You have to surrender to not knowing how things will end, if things will last, if that love will be returned.

I am learning to love airports and airplanes. I do not care for the crowds, the strange smells, the calamities of delay and cancellation, but I do appreciate the order of travel. There are procedures for every step of the process. You check in. You check your luggage. Sometimes, you do this without any human interaction. You proceed through security where you engage in a series of rituals we know are largely pointless but offer everyone a veneer of comfort. There are terminals and gates and means of conveyance between these terminals and gates—trains, walkways, people movers, elevators, escalators. There are rules for boarding the plane—first those who need extra time and those with small children. Our culture’s proclivity for caste systems emerges. They call it boarding by zone, but mostly it means a lucky few can board first and sit in roomy seats while the rest have to cram themselves into the rear of the airplane and hope for the best. A new set of procedures begins as flight attendants herd people onto the plane and direct the stowing of carry-on luggage and so-called personal items. There are safety procedures and information to be dispensed. The captain offers a few words of greeting. There is more waiting. The plane takes off. A new set of procedures begins.

Being a picky traveler affords a certain excess of control. It is startling then that I love control but I also love surrender. I love the control of choosing surrender, of choosing to not determine the when, why, what, to not know what will happen next.

I was in a hotel room in Los Angeles back in late March, presented with a dilemma. There was a couch but I was deeply suspicious of that couch and the bacteria lurking. My best friend was sitting on the couch, urging me to join her. There was wine and we were going to play Jenga, a fun little game for a control freak, sliding blocks of wood in and out of a tower, everything precarious. I immediately began conjuring everything that could have happened on that couch in the four years since the hotel opened. I couldn’t possibly sit, I concluded. I realized how ridiculous I looked, but the urging was really quite convincing so I sat carefully on the edge of the couch. I had some wine. I was in excellent company so I did not worry about the couch for long.

The previous night, I’d experienced my first earthquake but at first I didn’t realize it was an earthquake. I thought it was my heart pounding, then I realized the building was undulating and my eyes opened so wide. I had no choice but to surrender to the moment. There was nothing in that moment I could control, nothing at all.

Radio Maria, 119 N. Walnut Street, Champaign, Ill. Telephone: 217-398-7729. Hours: Monday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., Tuesday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.