I Remember You
Food as a memory marker.
If we are what we eat, then I am memory. Every experience I’ve ever had is anchored in my brain by the food I was eating at the time, or even the food I wanted to eat. Most people have memory triggers by certain smells, feelings, and food. I have those too, but the entry to my memory hall is always through my mouth – through food. My earliest memory is, classically, with the taste of milk from a bottle and my mother’s presence. I was given a special formula made with sweetened condensed milk because – at that time – a fat baby was a healthy baby. I remember the rich velvety almost overpowering sweetness.
Later on in early childhood, memory is a tomato picked directly from the garden and still warm from the sun. Fried chicken on Sundays after church and jars of ice tea always reminded of faith and forgiveness. To this day when I eat fried chicken, I always taste a day in May and am a girl again in the Sunday School choir.
My fondest memory is of being with my best friend, in her car decades ago. We are young girls – probably 16 – and it is early evening. We are talking and giggling and eating the most incredible Roman yellow Italian bread with Colby cheese. My sister would bring this bread home from New York City every time she visited. Big shopping bags full of Italian bread from a bakery near her apartment. My sister brought her own food because she didn’t think we had any good food in Virginia. To this day, when I ask my best friend what is her favorite meal ever – she replies “Roman yellow Italian bread and Colby cheese.”
I broke up with a boyfriend while eating a dinner of shrimp and grits. The shrimp was so fresh and the grits were cheesy with big hunks of pancetta and the whole thing fried in bacon drippings. Our entire relationship revolved around food and that is why I think it lasted so long. He smelled of strawberries and rosewater and his kisses tasted kind of fresh and briny at the same time like the Carolina coast.
Pesto sauce reminds me of my late husband. For some reason, during that marriage we ate a lot of pine nuts: pesto, pine nuts and hummus, toasted pine nuts on everything. I can conjure up the taste of pine nuts right now, and his memory comes flooding back and his face comes in focus just like a snap shot.
Food tastes are the last to go. I had a friend who died of a brain tumor. Her last tastes requirements were bitter and sweet. Near the end she lives off of lemons and chocolate pudding. At the very last, when she could not speak, move, see, and barely swallow I gave her chocolate pudding, and she would moan and groan like it was heaven on earth. Another friend, who died of colon cancer, ate nothing but mozzarella cheese – and not the kind you get in just any store. She wanted the real deal. I ran all over Washington, DC to find a salty baseball of mozzarella that would take my friend back to her happier healthier days in Lake Como, Italy.
My last taste will be of my mother’s Texas sheet cake. All my memories will be tied up in that final bite. The strong sweetness of youth, the fullness of womanhood in my mouth, and the velvet finish on the tongue. And since my mother always scorched her cakes a little, some burnt offerings of a little hell fire. I will remember it all.
Published on October 9, 2012 by Jean A. Anspaugh
the last paragraph is especially beautiful. It conjures up in me all the romantic sentiments towards food. A while ago while my mum was in hospital, and I think at some point when my whole family was lounging on the bed, I asked each of them about their special memories associated with food. The first thing they remember eating, their favourite food, the most mind-blowing food experience. Their fondest food memory.
I dont have a specific recollection of what i ate when I was a kid. Cake, macdonalds, porridge... I remember exactly what I ate when I got fat though. During the june holidays of my seventh year, my mum went back to malaysia with my sister, leaving my father and I alone in Singapore. My dad literally went nutso and let me go crazy during that month. I think we went to the library everyday and out for dinner every night. I remember going to Sizzler twice during that three weeks, and having two big bowls of ice cream and a shitload of blue jello (cuz my ma didnt make jello) and onion rings (ditto). a shitload. after that one month i put on around 5 kg and i think my dad regrets it to this day hahahaha.
Another one of those memories which to me, sums up a whole period of my life, is also that most-awesome-food-experience. On retrospect i doubt it is actually that awesome by other peoples standards, but to me its still golden. and my long-standing favourite restaurant. In the earlier part of my 15th year, still fresh in my korean obsession, it was my first time eating in a korean restaurant, along with joni, and while we just ordered normal dishes like bibimbap we saw a couple at the side eating korean bbq with lettuce and side dishes. It was with extreme fascination and excitement that I realised we could eat out of the exact same scene from korean dramas like goong. That was the time when goong had a huge following, and idk how many rmb but there was this scene where chaegyung feeds shin lettuce wraps and i was like HOLY SHIT, I CAN DO THAT TOO!!!! so we decided to order that the next time we went there. which we did, and can i just say when i ate that beef wrapped in lettuce with garlic and bean paste, i felt like i had never eaten such AMAZING meat in my life. it was nearly magical. and i still hold that sentiment towards the place. Following that, I was always super excited to share this amazing magical experience with all my friends hence i have constantly dragged different people there- softball friends, good friends, classmates, boyfriends, family, art friends- i've made it my permanent birthday location for CC celebrations. I doubt anyone feels that strongly about the place as I do but I think it will always be my favourite restaurant, though it isnt particularly classy or cheap. but special still! sadly i haven't brought many of my JC friends there, but it is a place i hope to bring everyone i love to.
Reading the last paragraph of the article made me think about my last tastes as well. In an uncanny way, it's similar to what the author had written. when i asked my father those memory questions, he said his favourite food and fondest memory corresponded (mine dont)- something that my grandma used to cook for them when he was young, and after playing the entire afternoon with his brother his mum would usher them into the house when it was time to eat. he made it sound like it was very delicious, but i doubt it. it sounded like eating something hot on a hot afternoon (LOL) not my kind of thing, but to each his own. ( i went to ask him again... he said sliced liver and kidneys in brandy and ginger soup.... o m g GROSS). my mum said durians with glutinous rice... because when she was a kid her grandfather used to bring home gunny sacks full of durians and they would just eat that for lunch and dinner (with rice). their last tastes, is probably more an association with love, than it is of actual good food. So is mine. Right now, i would probably want my last taste to be baklava that my mum made. She only ever made it once, but it serves for one of my fondest food memories. During the australian winter when I was 11, we had just settled into our flat, and i think my mum was experimenting rather than baking. I remember the roll of philo pastry, helping her butter the pan as she layered it on layer by layer, and when it finally baked, the delicious smell that engulfed the whole room. Neither my sisters nor I had ever eaten anything like that so we were all curious, and when we tried it, I was instantly enchanted, satisfied, happy, contented. the flaky bits of buttered philo pastry, the mild texture of crushed nuts BATHED in sugary syrup(or whatever it was), the sweetness tailored to our tastebuds. Actually, it was just a surprising and wonderful taste in my mouth. But in that dreamy winter-during-summer, I dont think I could have been a happier 11 year old.
Frankly, I cant vouch for how amazing my mother's baklava was, i doubt it's even that authentic. My dad's pig organ ginger soup sounds super gross (anything with organs IS gross) and while i like durian, i dont fancy it very much. But in the end a mother's labour of love and care boils down to much more than just taste. In a clear way it has dictated what happiness I want for my life too. Cooking for people I love, just sharing a very sincere notion of care and blessing. I hope the people around me can speak of similar experiences too.