I am not the only one for whom many of life's most intimate details come flooding back at the sight, smell and taste of particular foods. Everyone I speak to seems to have a favourite or, in some cases, a most hated dish with which they can recall particular moments of their lives.
In many cases the taste or smell of a sweet, a cake or an entire meal is capable of painting a picture with richer, deeper brush strokes than any snapshot in their photograph album. It is curious that, while I struggle to remember my mobile phone number or grapple helplessly to recall the closest of friends' names when I am required to introduce them to someone, the merest sniff of chocolate ice cream has been known to bring back memories from 20, 30, 40 years ago with frightening clarity. Put that same ice cream on a little wooden spoon and I can recall the cinema I was in when I ate it, the feel of the (red) velvet seats on the back of my bare knees, the colour of the ice-cream attendant's overall (lemon, with green piping). Details more glowing than if I had eaten that ice cream two hours ago.
In his bestselling book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby tells his life story through the football matches he has been to. While my own personal madeleine was not so much Arsenal's victory against Tottenham as the sensation of pulling a tooth out while chewing a Bluebird milk chocolate-covered toffee, it is true to say that memory triggers are as varied as the lives of those who seek to evoke them. Memories of food and the part which certain crumbs play in people's lives fascinates me. It satisfies both my incessant nosiness and acute greed. So much so that I have just spent several weeks talking with everyone from Alan Bennett to Vanessa Redgrave for a television series about the dishes through which they could tell the story of their lives.
I wrote Toast partly to unravel the emotional mess that was my own childhood, unwrapping humbugs and licking ice-lollies in order to relive something that happened a lifetime ago. My legs are still stinging from the slapping my Dad gave them when I spilt raspberry juice on the new dove grey carpet; the scent of violet cashews brings back fond memories of the soft, black leather handbag belonging to a favourite if somewhat pungent aunt; the tiniest sniff of a barley sugar awakens the horror of a good hiding I once got for hunting through my mother's bag (mushroom, to match her shoes) in search of her gold tin of 'travel' sweets. The whiff of Robinson's Barley Water reminds me wincingly of once pissing my pants.
Curiously, although the flavour of beetroot in vinegar might still instantly transport me to the back lawn of 67 Sandringham Road, Wolverhampton on a summer's day in 1965, it is actually what hits the nose - sweet, earthy, acidic - rather than the tongue that really hits the mark. In terms of total immersion in a time long gone the nostrils seem to win over either the eyes or the taste buds. When people say tomatoes don't taste like they used to they may be commenting on the changes in commercial production of the fruit (the variety, the soil, the modern chemicals) or simply on their own taste buds' inability to experience a flavour the way they used to. Yet I would argue that it is the aroma from the freshly snapped stalk of a home-grown tomato that is more likely to whisk them off to Dad's old greenhouse than putting one in their mouth.
I can reveal that Richard E Grant sniffs almost everything he eats. A legacy from a childhood in Swaziland where he checked the fish on his plate was fresh; Janet Street Porter hates the smell of stewed lamb because of the vision of her mother that appears at the first twitch of her nostrils; Vanessa Redgrave adores the comforting scent of a proper cooked breakfast. The nose can act as our own personal Google, searching out essential facts from the mass of information that goes to make up our lives.
It isn't all rose-tinted nostalgia. Victims on BBC1's Crimewatch often mention their attacker's smell. The whiff of their clothing, breath or hands becomes inseparably linked with the trauma of the incident. A smell can reveal vital clues because it can open up pieces of your brain that remain closed by the horror of it all. Despite finding eggs exquisitely beautiful to look at, the smell of their sulphurous yolks unwillingly brings back painful images of my father's weekly force-feeding sessions. One sniff and I start to heave. Such moments are the opposite end of the spectrum from the aroma of ozone and vinegar that is so effective a tool for summoning up an ideal fish and chips on the pier in Brighton. It doesn't mean they are any less powerful.
Of course, food linked with memorable events is more likely to kick off a few reminiscences than something we eat every week, which is why we probably remember birthdays more clearly than the average Sunday lunch. Even so it was nothing more than a mundane pickled herring that whisked me back to St Ives on a magic-carpet ride of onion, dill and vinegar the other day. And not only just to St Ives, but to the car park where my young niece slammed her fingers in the car door. Sharp flavours that brought back every tearful moment of a painful event. Having had many a herring since that dark day, it was only this one, with its distinctive piercing whiff of dill and white vinegar, that opened that particular box. And how one particular mango out of the hundreds whose juices dribble down my chin each year, was the one that reminded me of a woman I once met in a hotel in Sri Lanka. A crazy woman, who played opera at full blast from the bedroom of her hotel in the early hours of the morning - and yet someone I had completely forgotten about till every line in her face came back to me with one bite of that absurdly juicy fruit. And what exactly was it about that mouthful of boiled potato that reminded me of my school history teacher?
Of all the food triggers that can pop up in our lives there are a few that have done it for me more than others. Treacle tart makes me think of a mysterious uncle, gammon and parsley sauce is unmistakably linked to a row with my stepmother, grilled kippers to an Edinburgh bed and breakfast where I tossed my bacon into a plant pot in the dining room, eggs mayonnaise of being sacked from a job in a hotel, cucumber soup conjures up one of the happiest days of my life, a bowl of chocolate tapioca (don't even go there), and a certain recipe for fish soup with fresh coriander that allows me to relive a dirty weekend in Paris blow by blow. Recipes that all spark deeply detailed recall of not just where I was and whom I was with, but of details so bright and sharp they could have happened yesterday; to tell the truth, probably a damn slight clearer.
· A Taste of My Life is on BBC1, at 11.30am Saturdays
A big bowl of Trix
1st place $50
By Merrit Panaligan, North HS (Torrance)
Essay winner Merrit Panaligan of North HS in Torrance loves to eat Trix while watching cartoons.
Photo by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan
On the Trix commercials they say, "It’s part of a complete healthy breakfast." I’m sure that’s with the addition of a glass of OJ, a banana and some toast, because there’s no way these colorful fruity balls imitating bananas, grapes, strawberries and kiwis are anything else but sugar—which to me equals happiness.
Early Saturday morning (and I’m talking early, as in 6:30 a.m., 7 a.m. latest), just waking up from a good night’s sleep, rolling out of bed (literally), stumbling into the kitchen half-awake, with my eyes crusted halfway closed, the first thing I notice is my red box of Trix cereal. "Ah," I think to myself, "my weekend has finally begun." I eagerly but slowly reach for my favorite bowl, grab the milk and the spoon, pour the cereal, add the milk, turn on the TV to the Disney Channel to watch my favorite cartoons, and hop on the couch. I feel at ease with my big bowl in one hand and the clicker to the TV in the other.
The volume is on EXTRA loud, and every 15 minutes or so you hear my mom or my older brother yelling, "Merrit! Turn it down! It is way too early for us to wake up yet!" So I turn it down for the moment, but eventually turn it up again, because the crunch, smack, crunch, crunch sound in my mouth drowns out all other sounds and thoughts, making it hard to hear the characters. But all this doesn’t matter. To me, this is a typical weekend, a perfect way to start my day.
Sure, I may look 17 and eight months on the outside, but if you catch me at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, you’ll see that I’m actually only 7 years old like my sister. Nothing else in the world can bring me back to my childhood days like my Trix cereal. The mornings are the only peaceful part of my day before chaos starts up, the only time before I have to think about school or work or lame school drama. I guess it’s safe to say that Trix is the part of me that helps keep my sanity in life, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I’m addicted to fries
2nd place $30
By Milosi Mau’u, North HS
Fries. Oh, and more fries, please.
I am a French fry addict. You’d think that working at a burger restaurant would curb my enthusiasm for the salty delights—it doesn’t. All it does is make them easier to obtain. It’s sort of sad, really; I feel like a chain smoker sometimes. One after another after another… I just can’t seem to quit.
I once swore off fried potatoes altogether. My work pants were beginning to fit a little too snug and I figured it must be coming from the endless (and oh-so-free) amounts of Red Robin steak fries. When at their best, they are lightly golden brown, slightly salted with signature RR seasoned salt and "bottomless"—the most important factor. Sometimes I think I only work there because I can get free fries whenever I feel like it. Break? Let’s have some fries. Bored? There’s some fries. Got five minutes before clock-in? More freakin’ fries. They’re everywhere, yet I am never satisfied.
Perhaps my addiction stems from my favorite childhood vacation spot. We used to have a house on the Colorado River in Arizona, two doors away from a boat-stop restaurant called Badenoch’s. I can remember being 6 years old and walking 20 yards to the eatery. "One order of French fries with ranch please. Oh, and can you please put that on Uli’s tab?" I asked the bartender. I didn’t even know what a "tab" was, or why my dad had one. All I knew is that I got fries, even when I didn’t have any money to pay for them.
Whether they are curly, shoestring, criss cut, steak or seasoned, it doesn’t matter; all I know is that I am addicted to French fries. Maybe they hold some nostalgic memory of better days or maybe they just taste good—it really doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is the fact that I work at Red Robin—and Red Robin satisfies my craving, time and time again.
My grandma’s estofado
3rd place $20
By Name withheld, Eagle Rock HS
When I was 14 years old, I left the Philippines for good to begin a new life with my family in the USA. But my young heart has never stopped yearning for that one day when I would go back home. Mainly, to ease my heartache for familiar places and people that I love or even just like. Secretly, to experience once again the honest-to-goodness taste of home-cooked Filipino food. Yes, the food!
One peculiar thing about Filipinos is that they associate homesickness with food, which is the first thing that comes to their minds when they think of home. They usually crave tuyo (dried fish), bagoong (small fermented shrimp) or adobo (meat stewed in soy sauce and vinegar). Mine is a sweet tasting dish called estofado, my grandmother’s specialty. Perhaps food satisfies both the stomach and the heart. That’s why we remember not only the distinct flavors but also, or most especially, the feelings of love-connections we attach to particular food.
My childhood vacations were spent in the provincial home of my grandparents on my mother’s side, a good three-hour journey from Manila, where we lived at the time. The trip took longer in my father’s old second-hand Ford, and with my mother’s endless scolding of my father’s careless driving. But that’s another story.
When I was young, me and my other two sisters were finicky eaters. Until my lola (grandmother) discovered that the three of us had a "sweet tooth." She didn’t care why "sweetness" excited the taste buds of children, but my lola wanted to please us and started feeding us her preparation of that sweet, full-of-flavor estofado. I instantly liked the dish. Later, when I was old enough to understand, I was lectured on how to cook estofado. But I never learned how to cook the dish correctly, as done by my lola. Or simply, I didn’t have the talent to cook, only to eat, if that can be classified as talent.
If the name sounds Spanish, it is because estofado is heavily influenced by Spanish traditional cuisine which was introduced when the Spaniards colonized the Philippines. The main ingredient in estofado is pork. I don’t remember exactly what that part is called but it is the slab that is used when cooking roast pork, including the thick fat and skin. The meat is cut in big squares and seasoned with equal amounts of soy sauce, vinegar and brown sugar.
To add flavor and bring out that pleasant smell, oregano, peppercorns, aniseed, laurel leaves and cinnamon bark are included. The cooking begins by sautéing and browning generous amounts of crushed garlic and sliced onions, after which the marinated pork is blended and simmered slowly for more than one hour until the meat becomes very tender and the pork skin turns as soft as marshmallow. After it is done, what remains is the thick, rich, sweet sauce that glazes the succulent meat and the strong aromatic smell. If one is familiar with the scent of cinnamon rolls being baked, the smell of estofado is similar, only it is five times more delicious with the oregano, laurel and all the other spices in it.
When I eat estofado, it is accompanied with hot fragrant white rice, a basic staple on the Filipino dining table. When I bite, the melt-in-your-mouth texture brings out a delectable sensation on my tongue. I actually like the fat, which I think tastes like butter. All right, by today’s eating standards, estofado, loaded with all that cholesterol and bad carbs, can be considered unhealthy or sinful. Just the same, I love estofado. Very much.
Of the many summers and Christmases that I stayed in my grandparents’ home, the one constant thing that was sure to be there waiting for us at the end of each journey was the estofado. Sometimes, we would arrive earlier than expected and would catch the mouth-watering smell of estofado still cooking in my lola’s kitchen. At that time my lolo (grandfather) was wheelchair-bound because he had a stroke. But he never missed joining us and watching us eat with gusto the tasty estofado. Somehow, it delighted my lolo and lola to see our contentment and our bellies bursting.
Years later, in my adolescence and when my lolo had already passed away, my lola continued to make our tummies happy with estofado. But I remember that for one year my lola stopped cooking for us, not because she stopped caring but she had broken her hips and was bedridden for months. Those times, I missed estofado like a heartbroken girl missing her faraway lover. Before I left for the USA, my lola asked me when I would be back because she promised, if she’s still alive, to prepare my favorite dish as a homecoming treat. At that time I was not sure of my answer.
Every now and then, my mother cooks estofado here in our home in L.A., although I must admit it is not as flavorful as my lola’s. And each time, I remember my past life in the Philippines with a smile and a small degree of heartache. Every bite of estofado brings back memories of my fun childhood, of the many lazy summers and noisy Christmases, of the darling friends I left behind, of the laughter and affection of my grandparents; one is long gone and the other, who promised to cook for me my favorite estofado, is still waiting for me to come home.