There is an article in the new issue of Food & Wine by Perri Klass called How to Invent a Family Recipe. In the article Dr. Klass talks about her family heritage of adoptive dishes and how a dish she, her husband, and young son found on a trip to Thailand became the foundation for their own family tradition.
The article was timely because it hit on the kernel of something I had been obsessing about since my recent trip to Texas. At one point, somewhere or another, we were talking about food, which is not at all uncommon in my family, and my mom had been looking for sherry and missing the Gallo sherry and Hearty Burgundy that were staples in the kitchen of my childhood. My brother remarked that there was no rice wine that could recreate the flavor of Chinese food as prepared by my parents using Gallo Sherry.
A simple enough thing.
But what struck me is that I have no memory of how Chinese food as prepared by my parents tasted. None. I remember my early attempts at Chinese food, when I also used Sherry although a different kind. I remember trying different varieties and styles of rice wine, I remember different the different tastes as I worked my way to finding one that pleased me. But I have no memory of the Chinese food my parents prepared.
Now, I do believe that my brothers are better cooks than I, and they have more refiined palette's as well. One has pursued some formal training. One is a scientist and approaches food methodically, but with that refined palette as well, and probably a natural gift that I don't quite feel I share.
Or perhaps it is just that I never manage to pursue any interest completely single-mindedly. I will throw myself into it for a while, obsessing over and mastering some technique or flavor and then I will go off on some other tangent: sewing, gardening, knitting, whatever, until I come back to cooking again.
But the whole episode make me think about food traditions and food memory. I remember things I loved but I am not sure I remember how they tasted, or how they differed from the versions I currently create. I wondered if I could conjure up a specific memory of a food and recreate the taste in my mind to the point that I could isolate how it was different from something I was eating now. I was afraid I could not and I envied my brothers that.
After reading the article I realized that this is not quite true. I have eaten the Indian dish called Keema countless places and have tried recreating it in my own kitchen. Many of these versions have been quite good. None of them manage to capture the version of Keema my mother made when I was a child, a version of Keema we called "Missionary Curry" apparently because it was the only way she could get us to eat it. I don't have the ability to recognize the missing link between the missionary curry of my childhood and the keema I pursue now, but I do know I still search for it. What I don't know is if I am searching for a flavor or a memory of a feeling.
I can be quite sybaritic when I am eating and drinking, savoring and treasuring fabulous tastes and the feelings they evoke. And I suspect, now that I think about it, that I dismiss those things that don't live up to the sybaritic highs. When I was eating a lemon bar I could tell you exactly how it failed to live up to my favorite a lemon bars, and when I am eating my favorites, I isolate the memory in my mind as if to be certain they live up to the memory. Perhaps I don't remember childhood foods because I have replaced them with foods I prefer now. I remember the experience of childhood, but not necessarily the tastes.
I am not by nature a sentimental person. Perhaps I am not sentimental about food either. I might remember my grandmother's devil's food cake only until I encounter a better devil's food cake. I remember my grandmother, and having the cake with her, just not the cake itself.
The closest I have come to actually connecting with a flavor of my childhood was on our last trip to Paris, back in 2001. We were staying in the 16th arrondissement, and one day, while wandering the streets in our neighborhood I encountered an aroma that pulled me down memory lane and had me dragging my spouse down narrow streets in search of the source. We found it, a tiny little Russian bakery and cafe. They had just pulled a tray of Piroshki out of the oven. We purchased some and I was transported to my childhood, to sitting down to borscht and piroshki at home, to school lunch hours where I would have a bag filled with wonderful piroshki, sitting on the wall outside the school in the sunshine.
But wait. I followed the scent of the piroshki. I find scent is very powerful and can highly affect my mood and my memories of a place or an event. But did I remember the taste of the piroshki? I seem to recall I did. The aroma was evocative, but at the first bite I knew I had come home in some sense, home to some flavor I had forgotten.
I don't feel so bad now.