Saying goodbye to a food-filled summer with my son

It’s back-to-school month. I’m not faring better this time around than any other year that I’ve waved goodbye to my sons as they head back to the books.

I’ve always enjoyed summers with my boys. When they were little, the schedule was pretty simple. Mornings, we’d roam within a 2-mile radius of our home, biking to the zoo, going to the pool or having a picnic at the park. Afternoons, we escaped the heat, playing Legos in the basement or watching some Thomas the Tank Engine video, during which I might have sneaked a nap or two.

Back then, they actually wanted to play with me. Some 15 years later, it’s a different story. Kicking a soccer ball with me or throwing a water polo ball — any ball, for that matter — is an embarrassment for my 16-year-old, Anton. And I don’t understand the lore of Rocket League like Alvaro, my 20-year old who majors in computer science and has a passion for gaming.

Food, however, is where we can come together.

Alvaro spent the summer in Atlanta. Joining his transplanted family, he did not know a soul here and he got out very little. Often, it was a dining escapade that pulled him away from the screen. And that’s how we got reacquainted after he’d been away at college for nine months (other than winter break).

From treks to Gwinnett County for bento boxes, ramen and Cuban sandwiches to stops at Krog Street Market for a chocolate slushie to hunting down Cuban tea soda Materva on Buford Highway, food and drink were his introduction to Atlanta.

Vacation took us south to Florida as well as to New Orleans. Averse to slime, my son couldn’t quite get himself to slurp Gulf oysters at Flounder’s in Pensacola Beach, but he did enjoy getting a taste of NOLA — requisite beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde, gumbo and alligator sausage at Gumbo Shop in the French Quarter, and a resuscitating bowl of crawfish etouffee after an hourlong chess match with a chess master who holds court near the French Market. (Momma brag moment: Alvaro won.)

At Shaya, which beat out Atlanta's highly lauded Staplehouse to earn a James Beard Award this year as best new restaurant, Alvaro let loose his appreciation for carbs: "Mom, you didn't tell me this place would have great bread!" Yes, incredible pita coming out of that wood-fired oven.

At this moment, I’m getting back from driving him to college in Tulsa, Okla. He, more than I, turned that trip into an adventure. Outside of Tupelo, Miss., my lanky 6-foot, 2-inch, 145-pound son claimed hunger. “What’s good around here, Mom?” We turned down the dial on NPR and Ira Glass’ “This American Life” to locate Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, a fabulous, rough-around-the-edges farm-to-table joint in Tupelo where we placed an order for osso buco tacos, Parmesan fries and a salmon-peach salad.

The next day in Tulsa, we agreed to hit up Brownies Gourmet Burgers, a place that Alvaro and a pal discovered last semester when they completed a checklist of something akin to “best eats for Tulsa college kids.” He said he always orders the chef’s choice burger, dubbed It Is What It Is. The reasoning: either it is fresh stuff or the latest test kitchen experiment that might land on the menu.

Now in his junior year, Alvaro has an apartment and isn’t required to have a meal plan. So, when we hit up Target for odds and ends, he mentioned that he’d like to get a knife so he could cut a watermelon. Standing in the kitchen aisle and helping to pick out my son’s first chef’s knife might just be the equivalent of a dad teaching his son to change the oil of a car.

Next, it was to Reasor’s to stock the grocery cart with the fridge and pantry stuff he reasoned he needed. Sure, there were frozen pizzas and a box of Cheez-Its, but also oatmeal, pasta, yogurt, the makings for “Mexican night” burritos and that melon he wanted to cut open with his new knife. He even wanted to keep for himself a few of the New Mexican Hatch chiles that I had bagged for myself. Pinch me.

What wasn’t in his cart? Ramen. “I’m going to see how long I can go without it,” said the kid who has opened up a bag of this cheap noodle soup as a night snack since his early teenage years.

My, how far he’s come.

Meanwhile, I’ve driven through six states and back, a total of 1,600 miles in 48 hours. I’m a little bit loopy and a whole lot emotional.

I tried to hold back tears as I hugged him goodbye. I let the tears well heavy in my eyelids as I maneuvered the car east, a vast strip of asphalt separating me from Atlanta, my husband and Anton. Those tears fell onto my lap when I turned on a CD by Uncle Tupelo, a twangy ’90s alt-country band that my husband indoctrinated into our kids’ musical repertoire since their diaper days. “No Depression” blared over the car speakers.

I forced myself to smile. This has been the most delicious summer I could have imagined with my son. I spent the return 800 miles savoring it because, like the meal of a lifetime, I don’t know when or if it will happen again.