No one else in my family is obsessed with food, so I cannot blame my affliction on heredity. Maybe I’ve got one of those foodie brain lesions like Jeffrey Steingarten has. I know lots of poor souls who, like me, are already planning dinner as they flip their breakfast pancakes. We often find ourselves apologizing to non-food lovers. We bore them. They want to discuss heavy topics like politics and war. What non-food lovers don’t understand is that while we pour over cookbooks and contemplate The Perfect Dinner Party Menu, we are reaching for a greater purpose. We assign food the same importance as, say, politics and war because we believe good food is a means toward peace. And a fine way to arrive there.
Smell and taste link us to nostalgia. It makes sense then that the seasons trigger my food memories and cravings. I wander the farmers market like an aging hippie with acid flashbacks:
Apples! My mom stood at the kitchen counter for days, endlessly peeling and chopping and boiling jars of sauce. The kitchen smelled like steam, apples just before they rot, and cinnamon. The ropes of peels tasted as good as licorice.
Sweet potatoes! They were so novel and orange. We saw them in the market and had to have them. We brought them home, sliced them skinny, and fried them. We thought we had invented a new food.
Cantaloupe! Mom scooped out the seeds and filled the core with vanilla ice cream. Dreamsicles had nothing on our summer desserts.
Eggplant! We found a recipe for tomato and eggplant curry and kept adding cayenne. Our noses ran and we went back for thirds, heaping the stew over rice and cooling our mouths with cucumbers and peanuts.
Remembering a first taste of unfamiliar food drums up a different kind of nostalgia than moms canning apples or baking cookies. When I think about that tomato eggplant curry I am transported back to a shabby apartment kitchen and a dining room table covered in college text books and an electric typewriter. It was early autumn, not yet Halloween. We impressed ourselves with our kitchen daring, cooking foods we hadn’t ever eaten before. We didn’t know we were supposed to salt the large purple aubergine and go easy on the cayenne. But that meal… can I go back in time and share that meal with my friend just one more time? We didn’t know how transformative it would be. We had no idea that curry could change lives. Our culinary adventures were beginning.
I suppose the same thing is true of my very first culinary tryst. My sister bought a Peanut’s cook book from the Scholastic book order and I “borrowed” her copy. That was about the time I started making my friends call me Peppermint Patty. A few years later a Peanut’s lunch cook book came out, and I made my first cook book purchase: the first of hundreds. This week in Called to the Table I reflect on Scholastic book orders, Charlie Brown, and (sort of) pimento cheese. We cannot predict which moments will forever change our perspective, as Chuck and curry have done for mine.