The Taste of Memory
Issue #73, April 2005
I've been fascinated by food my entire life. I love to eat, to cook, to feed people. Very few things make me as happy as puttering around in the kitchen, creating a meal for friends or family, while the guests wander in and out of the kitchen or sit talking with my partner in the living room. Dietary restrictions aren't a problem for me. They're just a puzzle that needs solving. I've been taught that good food is always possible; you just have to find the right combination of ingredients. It took me a few years to learn the rest of that lesson: you also have to be able to afford or find the right ingredients.
I was nine when I saw starving people for the first time - not on TV but first hand as we drove past thousands of them in the safety of a car, and hours later or walked down the streets of Mumbai (when it was still called Bombay). It was as if the world had turned on end. I knew that there were "children starving in <insert country of the moment>". But, until that moment, when I saw children and adults with distended bellies and skin stretched so tightly that it merely emphasized their bones, to starve meant to be hungry because dinner was late. Not because dinner would never be served.
Feeding people became one of the most important things to me. It seems so obvious now that people are capable of so much more if they don't have to spend most of their time and energy to get enough food to last to the next meal. But back then it was a revelation.
It's not that I'm obsessed by food, but it has become a central way for me to socialize with others, to comfort friends and family and strangers, to recognize my own privileges and to occasionally feel guilty about them, to make myself comfortable in new places, and to remember the places I've lived and the people I've known in those places.
I breathe in the scents of foods, and I remember - places, times, people, adventures, politics. I've lived in four different countries and visited many more. Eating paper dosa and masala dosa in Berkeley remind me of the comfort offered to my minority of one in a school in Southern India. Bagels with cream cheese and lox in Los Angeles take me back to early Sunday mornings in a small bakery in Toronto and learning to be Jewish.
I eat more curry now than I ever ate in India. I even make it myself, although I never learned how to cook Indian food in India. We had a cook who did that. Karunan was happy for my brothers and I to play in the kitchen while he cooked, but would never let us help or teach us how to cook.
Karunan prided himself on creating three course European meals in our bare-bones kitchen with its tiny two burner cooker that had an oven so small that the only way to cook a large chicken was to stave in its ribs. He occasionally made curry for us, but it was more like British stew with a little flavoring, and almost no spices. However, he frequently made curry for himself: dark red-brown and yellow-green curries with so much spice and heat that they ate through the glaze on our regular dishes. My parents gave him money to buy his own set of dishes, so they didn't have to worry about him eating the glaze with his meals.
The smell and taste of his curries, the day he killed the enormous rat that jumped out of the closet at my mother and me, and a single afternoon in his house are my strongest memories of Karunan.
He came to our house week after week, going home on Friday afternoon and returning on Sunday evening. He worked hard, and yet considered himself overpaid and spoiled, because he was paid more than any of the other cooks in the complex and got more time off at the weekend. My parents were middle-class Brits, not very comfortable with the idea of having servants. And, so, the week when Karunan was too sick to work, my father decided that we should make sure he was okay. My father, my brothers and I got into a car and went to his house. I couldn't tell you much about the drive, or even about his house. I remember that it was spotlessly clean. That the sheets and the mosquito netting were pure white, and that his wife and son were stunned at the appearance of this white family on their doorstep, that he was almost uncomfortably joyous that we'd cared enough to visit. And yet, we only stayed a brief while. After less than half an hour, Karunan told us that it wasn't safe for us to be there, and ordered us to go home.
Even now, the look on his face and the fact that this gentle, quiet man would be so forceful still haunts me. There was a lot of prejudice against white people in India. I faced it every day at school, but until that afternoon I hadn't felt unsafe in India. None of the name-calling by students or beatings from teachers had accomplished what Karunan's concern did. When we walked out of his house that day, I looked around me, at the raggedly dressed people hovering in the spaces between buildings, their lean-to hovels barely visible behind them. I'd known they existed, watched them out of car windows as we drove past, stepped past them as I walked into stores and restaurants, given money to the damaged child who my father hired to protect us from the other beggars. Yet, I hadn't really seen them before.
My partner, who has traveled at least as much as I have, when asked also remembers people and places through food: onion soup is Jerusalem, curry is London, and yogurt is Yami in Philadelphia. She's taken me to Paris with her childhood memories of eating baguettes and croissants fresh and hot from the local bakery. She once evoked the sights and smells of a bazaar in Israel for me through her memories of playing backgammon, smoking opium, and drinking very strong coffee in very small cups with an old Arab. The coffee we were drinking at the time was nowhere near as strong, but the smell and taste were close enough to take her back there.
In the northeast of England, food is heavy, solid, comforting; filled with protein, carbohydrates, starch, and grease. Almost every main course that I ate as a child included a culinary matched set: roast beef and yorkshire pudding, boiled cabbage and white sauce, cockles and mussels, shepherd's pie and gravy, fish and chips, bangers and mash.
Oddly enough, fish and chips, the only one of those matched sets that I still eat, doesn't evoke the most memories. Instead, when I think about comfort food from home, I remember the yeasty, fruity scent of my Grandma's tea bread.
Grandma, my father's mother, was still alive the last time I visited England. She was in her nineties, living with my aunts and uncles on their farm. She used a wheelchair to get around, because she could no longer balance properly on the artificial leg that had replaced the leg she lost a decade earlier. She was just as feisty and just as determined to overcome her disability as she was when she made my uncle wheel her out onto the Alberta ice fields, so she could see for herself what the fuss was all about.
That visit, I decided that it was time to find out how Grandma made her tea bread. We all knew how to make cream cake and Sunday pudding and shortbread, but the recipe for Grandma's tea bread was locked in her memory. She'd never written it down.
After a few days of gently refusing me, she finally gave in. The recipe took hours longer to make than usual, because every time she added flour or sugar or butter to a bowl, we made her stop and let us weigh the bowl. She laughed at my fumbling notes whenever she added just another pinch of this or a handful of that, and told us stories about her childhood.
I can still see the farm kitchen as it was that afternoon. The room was warm from the smokeless coke burning in the fireplace and smelled faintly of the laundry drying on the lines that were winched up near the high ceiling. I didn't have to ask where to find anything, because my aunt still kept everything in the same place that she had when I was a kid.
The farm and that kitchen aren't there any longer except in memories. Family politics, regional politics, progress, all took care of that. The 200 year old farmhouse where both my uncles, their father and their grandfather were born has been razed to the ground and replaced by a golf course. Even during that last visit, the signs of encroaching development on this farming community were clear. My uncles' farm was one of three farms on a private road. The two farmhouses that were closer to the road were already abandoned, and had been stripped of anything worthwhile. A developer -- who bought the estate from the cash-strapped aristocrat -- had already evicted the tenant farmers, whose families had worked the same land for the same aristocratic family for generations. During my visit, however, the houses stood empty, because the development could not go forward without the central piece in the puzzle that was my uncles' farm.
After arguing in circles about how to divide the inheritance between their two families, one of which had twice as many children as the other, my uncles accepted the third (or maybe the fourth, I lost count) offer from the very deep pockets of the developer. One uncle and aunt bought a smaller farm. Margaret and her husband bought a house "in town" and take vacations to various places around the globe two or three times a year.
Most of my male cousins, even the older cousin who worked full-time on the family farm until it was sold, have pretty much given up on the idea of ever owning their own farms. They hire themselves out to other farms, working on the land that they love, but bringing home nothing but a paycheck at the end of the week. My youngest cousins, who drove tractors as soon as they were tall enough to manipulate the controls, haven't yet graduated from secondary school, but the world has already moved beyond their dreams. Their mother is trying to convince them to continue through post-secondary school and get a degree in something that can lead to a job that isn't farming.
I don't know very much about the economics of farming, or about what drives farmers to sell their land. I don't even know what percentage of arable farmland has been lost to housing developers, or taken over by corporate farmers who improving their profit margins by recreating the ancient feudal system of tenant farmers and hired farm workers. Still, I worry about that and about what will happen to those people like my cousins, who are born and bred to be farmers, but who have lost all hope of owning their own farms.
One of my best friends celebrates and remembers the people in her life by including ritual foods in her holiday and festival celebrations. One Christmas, she invited us to bring some of our favorite foods and made wonderful pancakes that we rolled around the different treats. The taste of those pancakes got her telling stories about her childhood, and remembering what it was like before her mother died.
I brought a copy of Grandma's recipe home with me, figured out the conversion from ounces and pounds to cups and tablespoons. The recipe card is stained and faded from more than ten years of use. It sits with other cards filled with favorite foods of family and friends, and shares shelf space with cookbooks that range from basic North American foods to Chinese dim sum, Indian vegetarian curries, Italian pasta, and Jewish festival dishes. Like the tea bread recipe that has traveled from Wolviston to Toronto to Vancouver to Oakland, my recipe cards and cookbooks will move with me wherever I go in the future. I've learned to rely on the tastes and smells of favorite foods and good memories to help to make my new place feel more like home.
And there are new foods, new tastes and flavors to be enjoyed, and new memories to be created.
Elisabeth Hurst is a member of the Bad Subjects collective and an amateur cook. She wonders which tastes and scents spark your memories.