Memory works in peculiar ways.
Some people hear an old song and are instantly transported backward in time, to a childhood summer spent at a beach, to the moment they met the boy or girl of their dreams. My 91-year-old father has always had a pictorial memory associated with the town golf course where he played 18 holes every Saturday morning: days later, he could still describe, hole by hole, each of the 80 or so shots he had hit. My husband can keep a knot of foreign languages straight in his head. A German word never pops out by mistake if he’s speaking Italian, while my brain, after decades living all over Europe, keeps trying to speak several languages at once, few of them convincingly.
Some people recall only slights against them, embarrassments, arguments, life’s humiliations. Others bury the bad memories so thoroughly that they never learn anything from them, and remember only happy snippets — when the heartthrob of their teens asked them to the school dance — conveniently forgetting that he never actually rang the bell that night, but left them sitting, overdressed, at home.
My own memory works best around food. A single bite of a crunchy McIntosh apple can bring me back to an October day in the mid-1970s, when I lugged home bushels of apples from a pick-your-own orchard in central Connecticut. For days I made apple pies, applesauce, apple butter, apple crumble. For the rest of that winter, the unheated hallway outside my front door, where I stocked the leftovers, gave off a slight apple-y smell that made me hungry any time I passed through it.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons I love blueberries is that they bring back the memories of my family’s first camping trip, to Burlingame State Park in Westerly, Rhode Island, where blueberries grew wild around the lake. I spent a week swimming, hiking and picking berries with new friends, singing campfire songs every night with the big family camped nearby. Come morning, my father made blueberry pancakes on an iron griddle he perched on our rickety Coleman stove. We ate blueberries at every meal that magical week, and even today, if I eat a bowl of them, I can recall how glorious they tasted snatched straight off a low bush near the lake, or mixed with chunks of a luscious, local cantaloupe that a truck farmer would sell as he drove through the campsite each day. When I eat blueberries today, I still remember that peculiar damp, woodsmoke smell that came from our canvas tent, and how my mother had had to be coaxed and badgered and begged to come camping, and shown the facilities weeks beforehand, to prove the existence of running water and flush toilets. I still remember how she was actually won over once she saw that a week in the woods meant that the farmer and his market had come to her on four wheels, instead of she having to go to him
My food memories are generally happy, not just because my extended family happened to be good cooks but because of the warmth of the atmosphere around the table where we ate. Part of the ceremony of eating together was the non-stop talking, joking, and laughing that went with it. We were all always on our best behavior at table — the grown-ups too — who either by nature or great good luck, by habit or design, always sparkled and shone when a plate of simple, fresh food was placed in front of them.
I suspect that some of our enjoyment came from older, darker memories, passed down the generations by osmosis, when there simply wasn’t enough food, ever, to go around, which was the basic reason my grandparents’ families left their poor Italian villages and got on the boat to sail for l’America. Maybe it was those unspoken memories of simple hunger that made us all seem so grateful and mindful of our good fortune each time we sat down together to eat from a plate covered with nourishing, tasty food. Nobody ever left our family table hungry.
I know that it was not until I was 19, sitting at a round, oak table in my dormitory dining hall, that I ever realized that not everybody had been lucky enough to have grown up with a simple and happy relationship to food. Before college, I had never imagined that a supposedly intelligent pre-med student would attempt to live on iceberg lettuce sprinkled with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice day after day, or that she couldn’t see that she was a walking skeleton, whose hair was the hair of a 90-year-old, brittle as fiberglass. I couldn’t believe my ears, years later, when a friend’s husband described his family’s daily battles around their dining table, which seemed to be a private theater for an alcoholic father to assert supremacy.
In this blog I’m going to be talking a lot about food, health, illness — both physical and mental — about the restorative pleasures of eating together, with family and friends. I won’t be writing about food as an enemy, a contest, or a race, because for me food is simply not a competitive sport. I’ll be writing about food as nourishment, comfort, and support, one of humankind’s most basic ways to celebrate the gift of being alive.