Thursday, April 7, 2011

Taste Memory

I watched "Ratatouille" over the weekend -- I love that movie!

Jeremy was a good son and went to see it on opening day with me back in 2007. I don't usually bother going to movies. Sitting and staring at the screen just puts me to sleep, whether in a theatre or at home; and very little that's produced anymore is worth the extortionist prices. But that one featured both food and France ... what more could I ask for???

So, anyway, I watched the movie yet again a few days ago. And -- as happened not only when I saw it for the first time, but also with each subsequent viewing -- I was struck by the scene in which feared food critic Anton Ego first tastes the ratatouille that has been prepared especially for him after he dares Gusteau's restaurant to hit him with their best shot. It is so poignant and so beautiful, and every single one of us can relate to it!

Now, for those who either haven't seen the movie or who would like a refresher, I offer two options for watching the scene: a shorter, silent version or a longer one that sounds beautiful in Italian. (A third variation -- being able to hear it in English -- is currently not available ... oy!)

In silence:

In Italian:

Now, each of us has some memory of food -- a dinner made by our mother or grandmother or the mother of a best friend whose house we used to hang out at, the meal we'd order at a favorite restaurant on extra special occasions, the soup or Jell-o salad we'd get if we were home sick, something -- that prompts this reaction. We taste this special item in the present and we are instantly transported back to the past, though sometimes we long for a dish we haven't eaten in decades that we simply cannot recreate.

The latest issue of Edible Brooklyn tells the story of Ebinger's famous Blackout Cake, an intensely rich chocolate reverie comprised of dark chocolate cake layers, filled with chocolate pudding and coated in chocolate cake crumbs. It is a legend unto itself -- unavailable in its original form since the bakery closed in 1972 -- but a recipe for it was featured in Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook.

"Former New York Times food critic and revered writer Molly O’Neill, while researching for her 1992 New York Cookbook, tested 15 different recipes at four different bake-offs attended by 'Ebinger blackout cake savants' and remembers the fights that erupted over which was most true to form. 'One of the recipes I got I’m sure was from a bakery because it was in huge commercial quantities, but none of the Ebinger maniacs liked it so well.'”

And the problem, of course, was that each person had his or her own taste memory, affected by time, by physical changes, by distance, by equipment, by many factors. Even if one could use the identical recipe in the same kitchen with the same oven, after nearly 40 years you'd likely still not get people to agree that this was the magical cake!

My paternal grandmother never wrote down recipes, or even notes about recipes, and simply cooked instinctively. (My maternal grandmother at least scribbled ingredient lists onto a few index cards.) My father's favorite dish of hers was Bread Pudding, made simply with milk, eggs, sugar, and some jam shmeared onto white bread; she baked it in a loaf pan.

I've spent decades trying to recreate it, and have been unable to; but I know, too, that even if I'd actually inherited a prized handwritten copy of the precise instructions, the passage of time combined with variations in ingredients and the modernization of equipment -- not to mention the different hands and heart engaged in this labor of love -- would still make the precious bread pudding elusive. It is gone forever, though my father remembers it with devotion each time he tries an inferior substitute.

So tell me -- what food do you remember most fondly from your childhood? What dish can't you get anymore or can't you replicate? And what prompts you to remember it -- an occasion, or a season, or a date, or a similar item?

Pour a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine, depending upon the time of day you're visiting!) and come take a trip down Memory Lane with me. As the now-defunct band Elefant sings in the song "Misfit": "... tell me your story, 'cause I'm into it." (This, of course, you can hear ... and in English!!!)

By the way, if you'd like to nominate your very favorite food blog (hint, hint!) as a candidate for Saveur's 2011 Best Food Blog Awards, please click on this link to Blogging is admittedly an act of narcissism, and I'm looking for a little extra attention ... well, apparently I'm outright begging, how's that??? Many thanks for any love you might throw my way ... :)


Angela FRS said...

Love this post, Mary--and now I really want to try that blackout cake. Would love to nominate your awesome blog! What category do you think is the best fit? I am finding their categories a little puzzling.

Lanie said...

Hi Mary, nice writing, and you do deserve a blog award! I have so many of my own, and have written about them. But after watching the clip you posted, I was more inclined to think about my husband. His Grandmothers husband acted as his grandfather, and used to sit him on his lap, spend time with him, and was really the only fatherly affection he ever got. He always talked about the cookies Grampa gave as a special treat for him called "Peanut Butter Penguins." I tried to re-create it for his birthday present one year, based on his description-even though I had no idea what they looked like or tasted like. I used Nabisco chocolate wafers, which I can't even find anymore, and a dipping of white chocolate and peanut butter. He was so happy that day. I'm sure it wasn't the memory of the cookies themselves, but the love they represented.

Karen Harris said...

I love this post. So sweet that Jeremy would hang out with his mom at an animated movie when he was 16. Now that's a good boy! I've never eaten blackout cake but love to try it sometime.

Jenn said...

I LOVE Ratatouille and also watched it this weekend :) Just a fantastic movie!
My most fondest food memory is my grandma's mac and cheese. And surprisingly, I cannot recreate it like she did...and I even have the recipe. My cousins and I think she might have left a step out... or maybe it's just a little bit of grandma that is missing when we make it? I have my many versions of mac and cheese that I love, but my grandma's will forever be my all time favorite.

Dan said...

My grandmother used to make these rosewater buns with chocolate inside.

About a year after she passed away, I found a bag of them in my grandfather's freezer. My cousins and I devoured them for the last time.

My great aunt also knows how to make them, but I haven't been able to get her daughters to give me the recipe so I'll probably never taste them again.

Michele Chastain said...

My mom's coleslaw...she never used a recipe but it always tasted the same, absolutely delicious...and I've never been able to replicate it.
Great post, Mary! :)

Cranberry Morning said...

What a fun post! And I don't know what Karen's talking about. Our 22 year old is still watching animated films. LOL Anyway, the taste memory subject is so fun. My favorite thing when i was young was my grandma's raspberry sauce, which she served to me when I would stay in town with her after school in order to go to my piano lessons. Just remembering her raspberry or blackberry sauce makes me all nostalgic!

Miriam said... favorite childhood food was always BBQ brisket (my grandma would make it just often enough to crave it on a daily basis). I don't make it or eat it because I'm vegetarian now :), but I still remember the love from her that I bathed in when I ate her food. Miriam@Meatless Meals For Meat Eaters

Beth Zimmerman said...

Hmmmmmm ... I think I would pick the GIANT gingerbread cookies that my mom baked and my dad decorated each year on Christmas Eve. One of my favorite things on Christmas morning was to wake and find those cookies. Each one was the size of a cookie sheet. Thick. Sweet. Spicy. Lots of yummy butter cream. A multi-sensory delight! And an edible "I love you!"

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