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Feeding frenzy 

It was the Best Of times, it was the worst of times

It was a daunting prospect. Having been in Atlanta for three months, I looked at my editorial calendar and realized that within a matter of weeks, I would be called upon to bestow Best Of Atlanta awards in more than 50 categories. This was a problem -- I hadn't eaten at anywhere near 50 restaurants, let alone the best restaurants and all of the possibly-best-restaurants I needed to have experienced to make informed decisions. Of course, I could rely to a certain extent on my colleagues, and especially our most seasoned of eaters, Cliff Bostock, but word of mouth alone wasn't going to do it. Clearly, I had a lot of eating to do.

So I started to make reservations. Then I started to panic. The sheer volume of food there was to eat, the number of restaurants I would need to get to, was almost physically impossible. I took out a calendar. I mapped out my eating journey. I realized that to really do this properly, I would need to eat at least two restaurant meals a day. For a month.

Of course, there were some serious benefits to this exercise. Looking at the names of the restaurants I was destined for on my calendar filled me with excitement. One of the great myths of being a restaurant writer is that you get to eat wherever you want any time you want. Usually, I am confined to eating at restaurants that, for one reason or another, are appropriate for an upcoming review. Here, though, I had a mandate to go to every great restaurant in town, every place that I thought might be a "best," everywhere I had wanted to go since I arrived, but couldn't find an excuse to get to.

And so I dived in with enthusiasm. It was exhilarating to discover so much great food; I was eating lunch at the Globe, dinner at Joël, and then lunch the next day consisting entirely of cupcakes, with steak at Chops for dinner. Some days I ate a four-course dinner and then went somewhere else to sample desserts, or to see if a signature cocktail lived up to its hype. I had my "A-hah!" moments, where bests came flying at me with assertion, like when my porterhouse steak arrived at the table at Bones, and the first bite was like biting into a meaty platonic ideal -- blood, butter, grassy mineral notes with a hint of nostalgia. I also had experiences that thrilled me and yet failed to fit neatly into a category for a Best Of award, like the beautiful butter-bean soup with a tiny BLT sandwich in the center that I enjoyed one evening at Restaurant Eugene. What a soup! But where to sing its praises? In my heart, and here, will have to do.

About a week into my eating extravaganza, things started to seem surreal. I realized that most of my human interactions were based on me being served by another person. I thought long and hard, for the first time since giving up my career as a waitress, about how strange and artificial this is, to be waited on by another human, with very little room for real connection. My body started to rebel against the avalanche of rich food I was subjecting it to. For the first time in my eating life, I began refusing the cheese course, only taking a bite of dessert, holding back on the after-dinner drink. There were moments that transcended the glut of restaurant food I was consuming -- chanterelle cream with truffle ice cream at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead brought my senses screaming back into focus, the dish's precision and sensuality definitively seducing me. In fact, there were many standouts, many joys, and I was awed by the breadth and quality that I encountered.

But there was an aspect of the exercise that made me more than a little loony. Somewhere in the midst of all this madness, I had a mini breakdown. On a Tuesday night, I defiantly cancelled my reservation at Rathbun's, and drove home to my family. "I'm cooking tonight," I declared. My exhaustion did not allow for anything fancy, nor was I in the mood for anything fancy -- far from it. I walked into the kitchen and set my sights on making beans and rice. I opened a cheap beer and began chopping. As I poured oil into the pan, and the onions and garlic started to sizzle, I was hit with a wave of revelation. Somehow, the smell of cooking onions, the sight of my neglected kitchen, the sound of my kid chattering in the next room, brought me back to what I truly love about food. That simple smell -- food being prepared -- was more beautiful to me than all the fancy meals I had eaten in the previous weeks.

The real joy in food comes from these simple acts, from nourishing someone, from nourishing yourself. This is so much more powerful than the luxury of being pampered at a high-priced restaurant. I understand it is a luxury, and that I am immensely lucky that my job requires me to take part in that luxury.

But luxury is so much more effective when it comes in small, glittering doses. Comfort and love, however -- the true products of cooking real food at home -- are everyday gifts that never get old. The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton may have been the best restaurant I ate at in those weeks, and the meals I had there and at other incredible restaurants around Atlanta were some of the best I have had in my life. But those beans and rice were the best meal I had that week.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, I sheepishly called Rathbun's to see when they could squeeze me back in.

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