Thursday, February 11, 2010

Food Memory Lane

One of my twitter friends from Britain just tweeted to me:
"I'm going to drown in my Pavlovian responses to your cooking updated here soon!"

Which brings me back to yesterday and the question I posted there.

What is the first thing you can remember ever having tasted, as a child, and do you recall the circumstances?

There were not many responses, but some.
Chocolate (of course), boiled eggs, which I thought was very, very sweet and childlike, and a couple of other, more exotic things.
I asked because I have a very clear memory of mine, it is a scene that is, in all its usualness, so unremarkable that you'll probably just say "duh".

This is it. A boring, simple wheat breakfast roll with butter and honey.
But I remember everything about it.
My father had by then gone on to Brazil, and I lived with my Mom and her three younger brothers at my grandparents' house. This is what it looks like, it has not changed at all during the years. My sister and I went by there last fall.

In case you are wondering, that house is a lot larger on the inside than it looks from here. A magic house, in fact.
In which my Mom and I shared a room, and over my cot was a pic of my father that I would look at every morning when I woke up. I must have been five, because that was shortly before we left to join him in Sao Paolo, and he was the hero of my little world.
That particular morning of the roll and honey, I woke up early. It was winter and still dark, and very cold in my room because the wood stove had gone out overnight. My mother was up already, I was all alone snuggled up in my bed, but I could hear the voices of the grown ups from the kitchen, which looked a lot like this

with a table and a bench in one corner (the cat liked to poop in that corner; my grandmother had a hell of a time getting under there to clean up) where we would have our meals.
So I got up and went there to join them.
Someone had made his way to the baker a mile away that early to get those rolls, and there they were, in a basket on the table, warm and fragrant, a mountain of them.
My grandfather sat me down between himself and my mother, wrapping something warm around my feet, and then they fed me that heavenly bread with butter and the runny, sweet honey and let me sip their milky coffee. I still recall that I felt all grown up and very important to be there with them that early in the day right before they all went off to work or school and I would stay behind with my grandmom and be with her until my friends from the neighborhood would come to pick me up for a day of romping around outside.
We could do that, back then. We lived on a dirt road in the forest. There was no kindergarten, no pre-school, no necessity to watch us.
My mother, that morning, was wearing a navy plaid skirt and a white blouse, and when she bent down to kiss me good bye a while later I could smell her perfume. She looked so young and pretty, and I remember feeling a little sad because she had to go away to work and had so little time to spend with me.

The next food I recall distinctly is the Filet Mignon we were served aboard that ship that took us to Brazil, and the special time when we crossed the Equator and the kids got little gifts from the Captain. On that long journey, that was the first time my mother sent me to lunch by myself because she was so scared she would be caught and get an "Equator Baptism" in the ship's pool.

And then, the very first day in Sao Paolo, and I know it was a Sunday, I came to love Olives.
Not too far from our new house was a huge market place, or at least it seemed huge to me back then.

Well, this was obviously not taken in Brazil but somewhere in cool Germany, but you get the drift.
The point I wanted to make was, I got lost that morning while I walked the aisles with my parents, only to be rescued by a friendly farmer who picked me up and sat me down on his crates to wait, and while I was sitting there - totally unafraid, mind you; it never occurred to me that I was lost - he fed me olives.
I loved that taste. And the tart, salty smell, and the feel of the hard, smooth ovals that would pop open and release their unique aroma when I bit on them, and simply everything about them. Even the pits that I could spit all over the place.
My parents came to pick me up way too many olives too soon in my opinion, and they were not half as happy that day as I was, but the good thing was, I got to eat many, many olives from then on.
And that was because my father, being an Arabian, liked his breakfast in Arabian style, too, which consists of fresh pita, olives, feta, some tomatoes and a dash of virgin olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and coffee or tea with it.
This here is another great family favorite for breakfast: Humus. You all know this, the Indian/Oriental chickpea dish, right?

My family is big on cooking and eating. My parents love to put on a big spread when we children get home. They fight over what they are going to cook for us for days, wanting to make all the childhood goodies and then, when we get there, urging us to eat eat eat, and we do, and then they pack up the rest for us to take back home and eat it at night.... really, Mom, we're SO full.... it is their way of showing their love, and I love them for it.
Food makes the greatest memories, and they stick with you, even if times get rough in between. When everything else fails, the meals you shared with loved ones will pull it back together. I know. I've been there.

Oh hey.... those orgies with the home-made pizzas, and watching Star Trek with my father?


  1. Now I'm hungry!! What sweet memories!

  2. Great memories!
    I remember the first time I had celery (gag spit).
    I was at Mary Willoby's house (she had 3 front teeth) with my brother. Can't remember why, but my brother held out a piece of celery and said...taste this, I took a bite and almost threw up. Things have not changed...I cannot stand fresh celery, cannot smell celery and if it's cooked it has to be diced tiny in a soup or a sauce and have no flavour left. If you serve me celery in a salad you will find a little ring of pieces around the edge of the plate.
    That is the main memory of taste that I recall from when I was young.

  3. I love bread and honey too.
    your post is very Proustian

  4. Sue: I'm not a great fan of celery either. It was all the rage when I was in Toronto in the late 70s, filled with cream cheese, and I never got why it was loved so much. In chicken soup, it is a must, but not to eat. Just for the added flavor. If I ever make it to Vancouver, we can skip on celery!!!

    Lee: I'm on my knees right now. That is probably the most awesome compliment anyone has ever given me. Thank you so much!!! I adore Proust!

  5. Thanks for triggering such wonderful culinary memories for your readers! Your blog is one I love to read as it always leaves me thinking and smiling.

  6. What a lovely idea to trace childhood memories via food! My own is quie similar to yours, except it involves dark rye bread and raspberry jam. But it's not so much the actual taste of it that I rememeber, but more the feeling of calm, serenity and "Geborgenheit" that came with it. So thank you for reminding me of it, dear Mariam.

  7. Peanut butter and jelly is my memory. Very pedestrian but at the time my favorite thing to eat.

    Your grandparents' house looks very magical!

    As for now, while I still enjoy a p&j (with raspberry jelly), pita with hummus is a favorite too.

  8. I remember eating a plate of cucumber slices when I was REALLY young- love this post and your lovely descriptions!!

  9. Abby!!! So pleased to meet you! I love your blog beyond words!

  10. What a great question. Mine is a slice of take-away pizza from a small pizza parlour called 'Athens Pizza' (Which, funnily enough, never struck me as an offbeat name for a pizzeria until just now) Anyway, I was about 5, and in a sort of day camp programme. We all brought in 25 pence and the camp leader ordered out for pizza (which I'd never even heard of until then). I loved everything about it. Being part of a collective meal, the fact that it was delivered to us by a man in a funny little car, the way it came in a strange flat box, that we were allowed to eat it with our hands, and of course, the pizza itself. To this day, pizza remains one of my favourite foods, and while making it at home is great, I still get a kick out of ordering it in.

  11. What a wonderful way to describe a pizza memory! Thank you for your comment, Melanie!

  12. My first taste memory was plasticine Lx