Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Food and Memory

Last Saturday I saw the film Ratatouille for the second time. James wanted to see it so I took him. The film contains one of the most touching, powerful scenes I have ever seen. The pretentious, cruel food critic Anton Ego has a meal prepared by the film's protagonist, the rat Rémy (though at the time he eats it, he is unaware it has been prepared by a rat). Ego tells the chef Linguini that "I do not like food. I love it. If I do not like it I do not swallow."

Rémy prepares a simple plate of ratatouille. The other chefs in the kitchen are skeptical of this choice, because ratatouille is simple "peasant food," but Rémy insists.

The dish is brought to Ego. He looks at it as if it is a fried cockroach, but spears a wad onto his fork. As he begins to eat it, the camera suddenly pulls back as his eyes widen in astonishment. We are no longer in the dining room of Gusteau's restaurant in Paris. We are in the kitchen of a French country house decades in the past. Ego is a little boy, standing bereft in the doorway with a skinned, bloody knee, a toppled bicycle lying on its side a few feet behind him, front wheel spinning lazily. Ego's eyes brim and his lip quivers. His mother is standing at the stove stirring a pot of something hot and steamy. She turns and sees him, smiles kindly. She gently seats Anton at the kitchen table and places a heaping bowl of ratatouille in front of him. He digs in with pleasure, the skinned knee forgotten. And then we are back in the dining room of the grand restaurant as the pompous critic is humbled by a simple dish of vegetables.

I had to choke back tears of my own as I watched this. I have been thinking about this for the past three days: how intimately connected food and memory are. It is so powerful that the faintest odor or slightest taste of something specific can transport us into a world of memories. Are we not all just chasing that perfect memory, that perfect moment? Our own skinned-knee ratatouille moment?

I can still taste the perfect baguette, salty country ham, and scrambled eggs I ate at a tiny roadside restaurant in the French countryside during my trip there in 1992. The French farmers were protesting and had managed to close the roads between Paris and Orléans. Thus diverted, our tour bus spent hours winding along on tiny secondary roads through picture-perfect French farming villages. Finally, we stopped at a truck stop diner, famished, the entire busload of 30-some American teenagers mobbing the place. The miracle worker in the kitchen managed to prepare plates of bread, egg, and ham for all of us. It was one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. I dream about that bread. That gorgeous, airy, delicate, sweet baguette. I press my nose to the crusts of breads and inhale, hoping to recapture that moment when I took my first bite of that crusty wonder.

Or the fresh Gulf shrimp boiled in seawater that I ate while on the beach on Matagorda Island, Texas Gulf Coast, during the geology department spring trip of 1999. We bought pounds and pounds of fresh shrimp from a seafood wholesaler on the island and tossed them into a huge pot brimming with salt water and a package of spices. They came out pink and steaming and when the first one hit my tongue I was transported. Never had I tasted something so sweet and delicious. I fell to my plate like a madwoman, ripping the heads and shells from the shrimp as fast as I could work my fingers. I ate at least two pounds of shrimp myself that night. I ate until I thought my stomach would split and I still wanted to eat more. I didn't want it to end. I have never tasted seafood as sublime as that either before or since. I am still searching, however. I fear that I will never taste such perfection again unless I return to the Gulf Coast.

Or the pizza parlor my family blundered into one pouring-down-rainy afternoon in Cleveland's Little Italy. I don't even remember why we were down there or even which visit to the area it was (it must have been 1986 or earlier) but we were hungry and I'm sure we (my siblings and I) were complaining mightily about not having had lunch yet. I remember we were the only people in the place; they were about to close. It was a narrow, cramped little hole in the wall. But the pizza, oh, the pizza. I ate more than I believed I was capable of: six pieces. For an 11-12 year old, that is a lot. They weren't small pieces, either. I mowed through them as if it was the last meal I would ever eat. I still think about it. Every pizza I have eaten since then, for the last 20 years, is measured against that one pizza from that one afternoon from a tiny place that doesn't even exist anymore. I have found a reasonable facsimile, a pizza which I am willing to admit is almost as good, from a pizza parlor here in Chelsea (we ate dinner there tonight, actually). But I am still looking for the pizza that is better than the one from childhood stored in my memory.

Or the searing hot chocolate I used to drink as a child at the ice skating rink in my California hometown when I would go there with my Brownie troop in the winter. After skating outside we would come in to warm our hands by the fire and sip hot chocolate from Styrofoam cups. The smell of the wood fire, the burn of the liquid in my mouth; this is what I think of every time I drink hot chocolate.

I think that the best meals are the ones which tap into a person's collection of memories. I believe that the best chefs are not the ones who create some fantastic new cuisine or unexpected fusion of flavors, but the ones who manage, through their food, to reach down inside a person to bring these memories to the surface. Each meal is an opportunity to rediscover long-buried or treasured memories of meals past, of foods I once knew and loved even if only for a short time. I hope that now I am not only chasing ghosts, but that I am creating new food memories with my own cooking right now.

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