Marcel Proust eloquently described the flood of memories linked to the sip of a cup of tea and some scalloped, French cookies called Madeleines. He wrote about things remembered from the “lost past” that resurged to his conscious mind through the senses of taste and smell. These “déjà vu” moments are already seen events that are intrinsically embedded in a flavor, an aroma, or a sound.
The first moment of a sensory touch – a whiff of a fragrance, a tang of a soup, a note of a song- evokes the past. Subsequent bites do not enhance the memory. An initial surprise at the remembrance of yesteryear is triggered by certain foods, Proust explained.
For me, the spreading of smooth Boursin on a fresh baguette and the subsequent savoring of the garlicky cream cheese on my tongue take me back to the sights and sounds of Aix-en Provence, my semester abroad, 1971, when I first drank a café au lait, slurped down escargots en plein air, and dodged velos on the boulevard circling the giant La Rotunde Fountain. I remember the wind- Le Mistral, the clay santons sold installs for Christmas crèches, and the view out my window of Mont Sainte Victoire, the same vista Cezanne painted.
Yet, food doesn’t need to be exotic to evoke happy memories. When my daughter and I assembled S’mores for her Brownie troop, the gooey, oozing campfire delight reminded me of my own Girl Scout days of hiking and best buddies and sneaking out of pup tents in the middle of the night in a dark forest. Give me a Good Humor éclair bar, and I once more hear the chimes of the truck at Cedarbrook Park in Plainfield, NJ, where I’d jump for hours on the in-ground trampolines of the ’60s: those days before insurance claims and lawsuits became the stuff of city council’s nightmares. Mid leap, I’d run to the jangle of the ice cream truck and watch the man in white brake for us with our shiny quarters extended in dirty palms.
I like to serve my 91-year-old dad bratwurst and German Potato Salad, the same recipe my late mom made decades ago. The vinegary tartness remains me of pool parties and grilling outdoors in our backyard for many pre-AC get-togethers. I see my mom’s effervescent smile and feel her energy as she proudly carries out her potato salad with the bacon still warm, glistening, and garnishing the top.
I gaze at Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Cover of Thanksgiving Day, replete with shimmering turkey, and I recall my mom’s stuffing. She cooked it inside the bird. The night of Thanksgiving always found us stooped, insides-out ill, convulsing, and tremulously incapacitated. Years later, I learned Mom’s modus operandi of fixing the dressing within the cavity of the fowl allowed bacteria to grow. Nowadays, as I smell onion and celery and poultry seasoning simmering and sautéing, I recollect those childhood days – all the glory and the guts – but I prepare my fixin’s in a separate corning ware dish as did my Southern mother-in-law. Memories wash over me of my courtship with a boy from the Deep South when I plop the first forkful of pecan pie in my watering mouth. The first time I touched foot in Georgia and discovered that highly caloric dessert was at his mom’s house, 1971, July. Southern barbecue, DQ delights, syrupy Southern tea – all hold stores of treasured times within.
Years as a young mother cooking for my family well up in my cerebellum whenever we dine at a pasta cafe where I glimpse red saucy noodles. Instantly I remember how my kids called spaghetti “getti” till their teens. I spy a plastic container of bacon bits on a salad bar, and I smile recalling that my tots named them “meaties.” All of a sudden, my grown offspring fade away, and I see in my mind’s eye toddlers around our kitchen table with the youngest of the four in a highchair slinging banana pudding at the giggly insistence of the others.
I order lasagna, and I am a co-ed back in the Ratskeller on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I ask for a Johnson Cheeseburger at the famous joint in Siler City, NC, and I feel eight months pregnant with my second child when all I craved to consume each day was a salty Velveeta-laden burger or maybe two!
A Bellini cocktail takes me back to St Mark’s Square in Venice al fresco in the evening with my girl pals on a gal spree mid-life. A cold cheap can of beer at any beach with the sand between my toes makes decades slip away; I’m 19 again at Lavallette, NJ, bronzing in a black bikini, and the world is my oyster!
Oysters! I’m in New Orleans, eating them fried and raw and with spinach, and it’s New Year’s Eve 1974, and I’m clutching in one hand my souvenir hurricane glass from Pat O Brien’s, while jazz music fills the air.
Food is synonymous with comfort, fellowship, and good times. To me, the smell, the texture on my tongue and lips, and the flavor resemble opening a scrapbook or a never-ending photo album of all I ever did and loved in my life, again remembered.
Some eat to live; some live to eat. Me, I eat to re-live. I relish the sights and sounds stirred up by meals. I savor the food for the sensations it causes. Some foods I eat the way some folks fondle keepsakes from a treasure box. People consume their victuals for sustenance, or zest, or the dining experience, but I often eat certain treats just to remember! I munch on candy corn, and I’m time traveling. I’m a giddy ten again! Better than Botox, a lot cheaper, and no pain!