What is it about certain foods that we remember?

One of life’s fundamental philosophical queries, also a foundational gastronomical query, is what is it about certain foods that we remember?

A true gourmand can give you the time, accurate to atomic clock standards, the place, three dimensional GPS coordinates, and an eloquent description of the seven (or is it five or thirteen) senses associated a specific gastronomic experience.  A secret Michelin Guide inspector could only be so jealous.  What about we mere mortal skiers?

We all remember those special foods our grandmother or mother prepared, our senses permanently encased in the memory.  For my sisters and me one indelible memory is our Lithuanian grandmother’s potato pancakes.  Potatoes were grated on the blades used for lemon zest.  The result was a watery mash that spread in a delicious suspension when it hit the hot oil in a cast iron skillet.  Crisp edges and a thin, soft interior … a little sour cream and we achieved nirvana.  As wonderful a cook as my mother was, she could not match her mother’s potato pancakes.  Sorry, pancakes made of mashed potatoes or hashed browns simply cannot measure up.  Was it just the potato pancakes, or is our memory shaped by the sounds and smells of grandma’s kitchen and grandma herself?

My friend, and patent attorney, Tom and I were in Santa Fe and ate at the Coyote Café.  I ordered a chicken dish, described as somewhat exotic but reassuringly within my epicurean comfort zone.  Startled in its arrival I watched the server with rapt attention.  With an oven glove she was holding a small cast iron skillet filled with a bubbling mixture of chicken and vegetables in a darkish sauce.  Upon closer observation, underneath the mixture the skillet was lined with cornmeal.  The server took my plate, placed it upside down over the skillet, and then flipped them both.  She set before me a mound of cornmeal from which emanated the most amazing aroma.  Piercing the cornmeal mound, my plate was flooded with the mixture and more intense aroma.  Gingerly forking a mouthful, the sauce took command.  Neither enchilada sauce nor molé, or perhaps a mixture of both, it was simultaneously intense and subtle, lingeringly chipotle.  When I asked the server about the sauce her only answer was it was unique to the chef, she had never had anything like it, and she thought that the chef was somehow using cactus oil in making it.  I have never again found a dish anywhere close to my Coyote Café experience.  (Chef, if you are out there, please get in touch.)

What was it about this dish that evokes such strong memories in me?  The taste of the sauce, of course, but I think its dramatic presentation was perhaps more foundational.  Not your basic chicken pot pie by any stretch.  And there was the setting, a uniquely amazing meal after Tom and I had spent the day wandering through the shops and studios of the ethereal artisans of Santa Fe.

It was our last night in Birmingham, England, and Ellen and I wanted to celebrate.  The owner of the bed-and-breakfast, St. Paul’s House, had given us the names of the three best restaurants in Birmingham.  No luck in getting reservations at the first two, success with number three, Simpsons.

The taxi dropped us in front of what appeared to be an estate house in Edgbaston, a leafy suburb just over a mile from central Birmingham.  Entering we were escorted by uniformed attendants into what was obviously the former living room; what, we eat from trays on our laps.  Two champagne flutes appeared as we were seated on the sofa, and soon thereafter our Table Captain with menus.  He explained the available Simpsons dining experiences and after a leisurely peruse, we chose the tasting menu.  Reaching the bottom of the champagne flutes, we were escorted by the Table Captain to our table at the rear of the dining room next to the decorative block stone wall.  We learned later that the dining room had been created by converting the house’s former owner’s attached greenhouse.

The courses began arriving, delivered by our server escorted by the Table Captain.  Such structured graciously informal formality was novel.  The highwater mark was the seafood mousse.  We have never before been served a cold rock for dinner.  I know, you think I am exaggerating, but the seafood mousse was smeared atop a large rock, an eight-inch diameter rough sphere.  I do not remember the taste of the mousse, but I definitely remember the rock.

Seated at the table next to us was a British woman with her elderly mother.  They had obviously not ordered the same menu, and were delightfully watching us attack the rock and engaged in banter with us.  As the woman and her mother were paying their facture alimentaire, there were each given small take-away bags.  I suggested Simpsons was sending them home with excess rocks, which evoked considerable laughter from them and us and somewhat of a fractured scowl from their Table Captain (fortunately he could not see the swallowed smile on their server’s face behind him).  Our bags contained chocolates, but I fully expected rocks.

Again, the question, what forms the memory?  Yes, the presentation of the mousse on the rock (sounds like a music group or an exotic drink) was dramatic and memorable, but the engagement it created with our delightful co-diners is equal in our memories.

Back to the more mundane.  There was English Penny’s presentation of Americanized bangers and mash on a trip to Snowbasin in Utah … enough said.

My son Brian and I were in YMCA Indian Guides when he was young.  We went camping once a month from September to May, except December.  A “tribe” was ten to fifteen dads and sons, a “nation” eight to ten tribes.  We were the “Paiutes” of the “Ahwahnee” Nation.  (Most believe we took our name from the Ahwahnee Indians that lived in Yosemite, but our logo was usurped from the Ahwahnee Hotel there.)

Sidebar … Ethnologically the natives of the Yosemite Valley belonged to the Mariposa dialect group of the southern Sierra Miwok Indians, and the ethnologists assure us that the Indian name for the valley was, and still is Awani (Ahwahnee), which was the name of the principal village in the valley, and by extension, the name of the people also.  [The Ahwahneechees: A Story of the Yosemite Indians (1966) by John W. Bingaman]

Sunday morning breakfast almost every campout was prepared by Mark with the able assistance of his son Tyler.  A one-item menu, chorizo and egg burritos accompanied by salsa and pico de gallo; mild for the boys, muy picante for the dads.  Cold cereal was available for the few non-imbibers.  I can and have made chorizo and egg burritos at home, but they do not have the sensory impact of standing around the campfire cooking stove with the other dads and sons waiting, impatiently, fidgetingly, for Mark to declare breakfast.

If you are ever in Lugano Switzerland you have to experience Ristorante Pizzeria Mary.  Its pizza ai quattro formaggi is distinctive but the most amazing dish is pasta con olio caldo infuso di aglio e pepe.  The server brings you an unadorned bowl of spaghetti.  A few minutes later she appears wearing an oven mitt carrying a steaming steel pitcher from which she dispenses garlic and pepper infused olive oil that started out cold but has been excruciatingly slowly raised in temperature over days to incipient boiling, but not boiling.  When you lean over the bowl to catch the aroma, your face is flushed like you are getting a facial.  Overcoming your brain saying wait, you experience the heat of the pasta, temperature and taste, and keep wanting more.  

Was visiting Ristorante Pizzeria Mary and having the pasta and olive oil happenstance, no.  Was it the theater of the delivery that made dinner so memorable; that certainly contributed.  The memory is rooted in being taken there by Mark, Chief of the Indian Guides Ahwahnee Nation preceding me, who has his European business operations in Lugano (a different “Mark” from chorizo Mark).

The weekend mad dashes to Mammoth Mountain morphed in my 30’s into fewer weeklong trips, almost always with friends.  We now faced the prospect of multiple days of condominium cookery which, of course, meant more than a single spaghetti recipe.  Oh, the challenges we faced.  Luckily, my friends had their own ideas about recipes and could share the anxieties, or alternatively make dinner reservations for all of us.

Epicurus said it best, “We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.”  Ski areas have great restaurants and unique dining experiences.  Whether we cook together or go out, our food memories are rooted in those with whom we ski and share meals.

[Prior posts are available in the Archive.]