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Kathy Bradley
Instant comfort not to be traded
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Momofuku Ando has died. He was 96. A Japanese entrepreneur, he was the founder of Nissin Food Products. He invented the instant noodle. What we call ramen noodles. What my college buddy, Mona, called, for no discernible reason, flexy noodles.
    Ramen noodles were one of the staples of my law school diet, available at the Piggly Wiggly on Vineville Avenue for six packages for a dollar. I think I tried the shrimp flavor once, but most of the time I rotated among chicken, beef and pork.
    I wasn’t much of a cook then, but standing over my tiny little apartment stove and watching the brittle square of noodles fall apart and soften in a pot of boiling water made me feel, somehow, a little more human. The steam would raise and swirl around my face and, after I opened the plastic-lined foil pouch and emptied the flavor packet into the pot, the scent of chicken soup would spread through my three tiny rooms like a cartoon genie freed from a magic lamp. It would creep into the curtains and the carpet and my winter coat draped over the back of one of the two chairs that bracketed my cinder-block-and-2x4 bookshelves. The next day when I came back from class and opened the door the lingering aroma made those three rooms a little less empty.
    Katherine was in graduate school at the same time I was in law school and her go-to meal (to use one of perky Rachael Ray’s favorite phrases) was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, only most of the time it wasn’t Kraft but whatever generic brand the grocery store in Athens had on sale for three boxes for a dollar. She managed to get two meals out of a box so she and I were pretty much on the same food budget.
    At the time, of course, the idea of eating ramen noodles (or macaroni with powdered “cheese”) three or four times a week wasn’t as romantic as it appears in retrospect. More than once I had to remind myself that the economic deprivation of being a law student would not last forever, that one day I would be able to choose my meals based on something other than price. Over 25 years later, I can’t remember the last time I bought a pack of ramen noodles. I haven’t asked her, but I don’t think Katherine has bought macaroni with fake cheese since her children were small.
    The last time she and I ate together it was for a Christmas party at Sandhill. There was real china and crystal and flatware that I keep in a big wooden box. There were linen napkins and candles. And we ate real food, cooked from scratch. It was a lot of fun.
    But, now that I think about it, not any more fun than the ramen noodles and mac and cheese days, the tiny apartment days, the our-whole-lives-before-us days. Days when there was nothing better than the free entertainment of standing on the Indian Mounds and watching the whole city spread out before us. Nights when there was nothing better than cruising down Highway 41 with the Guess Who wailing out “These Eyes” through the speakers on the 8-track tape player. Days and nights when there was nothing better than being young and eager and hungry.
    The newspaper article that informed me of Mr. Ando’s death said that the Chinese eat nearly 30 billion packs of ramen noodles each year and that 65.3 million packs were eaten worldwide in 2004. Mr. Ando died a very rich man. I hope he also died a happy man. I hope he knew that his noodles were more than just food for the body, that they were — in that odd backward glance kind of way — food for the soul.
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