Nothing recalled exists without relations; the raft of memory bobs atop a sea of association.
This is definitely the case in our remembrance of food.
Each of us, if we plumb our mnemonic reserves, can retrieve memories of favorite foods. Attached are our refurbished versions of the circumstances in which the flame of attraction was kindled — versions constantly remodeled to fit our purposes.
This is the case, as well, for foods we can’t stand.
For example: me and ham loaf.
I’ve been unable to ingest ham loaf since a stressful, cold early winter day in 1956 when, following three heaping portions of loaf at my Aunt Grace’s house in Central City, I repaired to a nearby mine tailings dump to suffer unspeakable agony, my nearly lifeless, but husky body then carried back to the house by my brother Kurt and my cousin J.R.
My father, the doctor, said I had the flu.
I knew better: It was the ham loaf.
In my opinion, the fact no one else who ate it took sick was an example of divine intervention, and the intervener merely forgot to include me. But, wait, if the divine agent was omnipotent and all-knowing, how could I be forgotten?
Clearly, the ham loaf was meant as a test, a lesson, and it nearly killed me. To this day, the memory of ham loaf sets my digestive system aflutter, causes a precipitous rise in blood pressure. The salivary glands go into overdrive, acid sloshes upward
The unpleasant reaction prompts me to find another, more desirable food memory to calm my gastric storm and to set free other associations.
Food is one of the most effective mnemonic devices: tastes, textures, smells stimulate reflection, bend us back to people, places, situations long gone.
Allow yourself to open up when confronted with a food fact; see what bubbles up from the unconscious. It’s unpredictable, delightful.
What happens when you smell freshly-baked bread? Let your mind go, where does it take you? I am at Ruegnitz Grocery, in old South Denver.
How about a roast in the oven — a pot roast at 325 degrees with vegetables and spices donating fragrances to the mix?
A chocolate cake, still warm, waiting for its frosting? My mother appears.
Fresh corn tortillas, frying in lard? I can almost see my boyhood friend Mark Vigil. His cousin with the long braid is making dinner in a kitchen on Pennsylvania Street.
Onions on the cusp of caramelization? A roux one degree this side of mahogany?
Curry? Egad, I’m at the Bombay Cafe in Pasadena or Anwar’s in London.
The odor of a pub? Or of a great breakfast joint?
A sniff of single malt scotch, a Bordeaux splashed across the palate? The fermented nuttiness — the wet-fur-of-a-feral-animal overtone — of a high-grade, brewed shoyu?
Have you consumed a classic grilled cheese sandwich lately? Did you focus on the ores the experience pulls from beneath the psychic surface? Add a cup of cheap canned tomato soup to the mix. Anything?
The smell of freshly decanted ginger ale? The tickle of the bubbles against the nose?
Where does mayonnaise take you? Herring?
Sardines transport me to the banks of the Upper Taylor River. It is noon and clouds rise over the mountains to the west of the high mountain valley.
I hear the water; there are cattle a couple hundred yards away. A pine-scented breeze stirs the hot midday air. Uncle Jack cracks a can of sardines and pulls a pack of Saltines from his pocket. Our fishing poles are on the grass next to us. My ear hurts where I hooked myself with a yellow-body gray hackle while trying to cast around a pesky willow. The same associations would flower if I ate Vienna Sausages or potted meat.
Bolognese sauce, simmered slowly on a stove. It is warm and humid indoors, bitter cold outside. I’m seated alone at a table in a little restaurant on Greene just off Bleeker Street. I haven’t eaten in two days. Finally, I’ve got enough cash together to go a la carte. One choice, nothing extravagant: maybe a half order of ravioli, lovingly smothered with an incredible, garlic-riddled, fleshy and complex sauce. Then, back to the Hotel Albert to explain to an increasingly surly manager why I haven’t produced the month’s rent. A dilemma that will be solved by a change of locks, not by me.
Double-cooked French fries. Or are they Belgian fries, or Dutch fries? I’m just past the Red Light District in Amsterdam, wandering away from the waterfront, hopelessly lost after a visit to a coffee shop. Extra-crispy, puffy sticks of hot spud wrapped in a cone of heavy white paper, dipped in mayonnaise. Who cares where that tacky canal house I call home base is located? As long as the fries hold out, I’ll walk to Rotterdam. They are the greatest fries ever made.
Brown rice. A daffy hippie from the Haight named Shrinking Violet and her German shepherd Steppenwolf. Violet loves everyone and wants them to be healthy. She marries an opthamologist and drives her kids to soccer games in a Volvo station wagon.
Roasted goose. I am at the Kid’s Table with my siblings and my cousins, barely able to see over the edge of the table top to the food before me. My Grandmother Mabel brings a piece of goose to each child, with a helping of red cabbage and some herring. Without these additives at the new year, Nords too numerous to count would die senseless deaths.
Raspberries. I walk with my Aunt Hazel on the tram road that goes from the English side of the mountain in Central City to a place called Castle Rock. Cornish miners planted raspberry bushes next to the road 75 years before. We carry metal buckets and we pick the ripe berries. We eat the berries for breakfast, in a bowl, with heavy cream. We finish dinner with raspberry tart and whipped cream. Hazel lets me help make raspberry jelly and jam. I stand on a stool at the old heavy stove, stirring for what seems to be hours, my every pore saturated by the berrified steam.
Pastrami, knishes, kreplach, chopped chicken liver, schmaltz. It’s the sadly defunct Chuck o’Luck Deli on Krameria Street in Denver. I watch my beloved friend Pierre inhale a Howie’s Heartburn in less than two minutes. Complete with pickle and a side of slaw. The sandwich is a monster, a four-inch tower of corned beef, pastrami and salami, lovingly contained by mustard-slathered dark rye. A slab of kugel to finish things off. The man was a master eater.
I cook nearly every night, so I try to break the boredom with an occasional memory-rich dish — something to make dendrites multiply and grow, to accelerate the pace of the neuron circus. I need to compile a list of foods rich in associations to use as a guide when I shop.
Where to start?
Gobo, cut into thin sticks, simmered in mirin and tea, with a touch of sugar.
Corned beef hash.
Brown sauce, demi-glace.
It goes on and on. And with each word, each bite, each moment of preparation, the pastograms flash on the brain screen at incredible speed.
Right now, I’m considering baking a slab of salmon, with aromatic veggies and herbs. It reminds me of my friend Fabby’s wedding in 1980. It was her second or third wedding, but it was a doozie, foodwise.
If I can’t get a whole salmon (why would that be?) I’ll try for one of those major-league hunks of salmon carcass you occasionally find at the market. No head, no tail, gutted, skin on.
While the oven preheats to 375, I’ll reduce a cup or so of sauvignon blanc in a sauce pan, not too hot, at a simmer. Into the wine, I’ll toss some fresh herbs — tarragon is good, some basil, a sprig or two of rosemary — as well as a stalk of celery, a couple of lemons sliced with peel on, minced shallots, a bit of salt and a touch of white pepper.
When the wine is reduced by more than half, I’ll put the hunk of fish on a sheet of doubled foil, pour the wine and goodies on the fish and close the foil, folding and crimping the edges. Into a large baking pan the package will go and I’ll bake the beauty for nearly two hours. I’ll let the delectable finny thing cool, then I’ll chill it in the fridge.
A yummy accompaniment will be a mayonnaise, with parsley, or a standard green sauce.
As I eat, I’ll remember Fabby, stubbornly clad in white, as she took a header down the steps leading to her mother’s garden where minister, besotted groom and well wishers waited. It was an omen, but the salmon was delicious. There was a smell of rain in the air and a car drove up and down the street at the front of the house, “It’s a Family Affair,” by Sly and the Family Stone blaring from its sound system.
There seems no end to the recipes, the dishes, the associations. Memories blow through the mind like dry leaves across a November lawn.
Nothing is off limits.
Except that accursed ham loaf.