Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a flavor is almost always more than just what one derives from one’s palate. Marcel Proust famously was flooded with sensory memories of his petites madeleines, elevating them from obscurity among some of the more sensational French baked goods.
In Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, two girls are puzzled by their grandmother’s episodic melancholy as she revisits physical remembrances of things past: yellowed gloves, dried flowers, letters, photographs, clothing. They do not understand what these things evoke for her, and she keeps her memories to herself: “twice a year compelled in her blood by the change of seasons” she “would sit nearly all of one day beside old trunks and boxes . . . unfolding layers of garments and small keepsakes; she spread them out on sheets on the floor around her, crying over certain things, nearly always the same things. . .crying gently and easily as if tears were the only pleasure she had left.”
The young girls themselves “examined the objects, one by one, and did not find them, in themselves, impressive.”
Ordinarily, memories carried by objects, like sensory memories, not only are difficult to convey to anyone else, but are sealed within the person who holds them, disappearing–plof–when that person is no longer with us. But the memories can endure if the stories are spoken.
Memories can be powerfully tied to our sense of flavor alone. Like the unspoken context of a photograph, flavors can bring back idiosyncratic layers of our lives.
Soy: the dappled, intricate mosaic on a hard-boiled egg whose shell was gently rolled and cracked, soaked in soy sauce, then peeled away. A friend of my parents showed me this wonder when I was no more than four, and I never forgot it.
Carrot: the cold, lemony shreds Jim politely picked through when, as a newlywed, I came up with the Worst Pie Recipe Ever.
Tomato: the sweet, perfect slices of summer fruit my mother brought when she came to stay with us just after our son Sam was born.
Vanilla: ice cream smeared on the pink, plump cheeks of our son Noah as he sat in a highchair on an outside deck, by a bridge that is no longer.
Maine blueberry: the improbably enormous, juicy indigo orbs which bled red when we bit into breakfast muffins in Bar Harbor, when all our children were small.
Tres leches: the birthday cake served to a new friend on a boat in the Galapagos during our last trip as a family of six.
Strawberry: the deep, sweet sauced slices covering a dense chocolate cake friends baked for our last Valentine’s Day.
Coffee with cream: nectar of the Gods. Ambrosia lifted on the wings of doves.
Red Velvet: not only the plush interior of our Olds Delta 88 (which we got, free, when it already had 250,000 miles of its own back story)–otherwise known as the “Living Room on Wheels”–but the rich comfort food I downed on Charles Street as I wandered on an icy December day while Jim was under anesthesia for hours in the hospital up the street.
Pasta: the bubbling pots of hand-rolled gnocchi and herbed tomato sauce which our friend had going on the stove for the friends who gathered in our kitchen on the last day Jim was able to walk to it.
Lemon: the final flavor that touched my husband’s palate, on his last day. He savored just a drop, on a tiny square swab that touched the roof of his mouth.
For a very long time, grief left me without the capacity to take in food or enjoy any flavor, just as it stripped away color and light. It seemed to leave me bereft of the ability to savor anything.
But this week I noticed something new managed to sneak into my memory’s flavor repertoire: five-spice gelato served upon a tiny red spoon, sampled at seven degrees below freezing as my son and I crunched through snow in Brunswick, Maine.
Jim surely would have tried it.