During Sunday supper, my husband and I fell into an oddball conversation that I realized, an hour later while loading the dishwasher, we’d had before. The conversation has been variations on the same topic. A sort of savory skip down memory lane. The catalyst last night: rosemary chicken with roasted carrots.(I was testing recipes for this year’s Thanksgiving turkey. Chicken being a whole heck of a lot cheaper than its Mammoth turkey cousin. This was a trial run, mind you, and we’re still in an economic slump.)
Here’s how the conversation went down:
My husband sees his plate and says, “Roasted carrots? You don’t usually make roasted carrots.”
“You’re right, I don’t.” (Personally, I’m not too fond of carrots—maybe it’s the phallic thing, I don’t know.)
He takes a bite, chews thoughtfully and swallows. “My mom used to make roast beef with carrots and potatoes. We ate a lot of roasted carrots growing up. Kind of a go-to.”
“Really,” I say. “My mom’s go-to veggie was broccoli in a red-wine vinaigrette.” My mouth waters despite being full of fowl.
“She’s made that for me. Good stuff,” says my husband.
I swallow my chicken, and swear it tastes of Mom’s vinaigrette. “We had a lot of green beans, too,” I add.
“From the can or fresh?” he asks.
“Canned, I think. Cheaper on an Army Captain’s salary.”
He nods, understanding. We’re both from military families.“Your mom ever make beets?”
“Not too often.”
“I hated beets. I once thought it was a can of cranberries in the cupboard. Nope, a bunch of beets.” He wriggles his nose like an Easter bunny and pushes the remaining carrots round his plate. “How about spinach?”
And on we went discussing our childhood vegetables, and why we did or did not like them. We’ve done this before. Last time, it was pies: apple versus pumpkin versus pecan, peanut butter, cherry, grasshopper, lemon meringue, chocolate fudge… etc. The time before that, it was a trip to cookie days of yore, coming home from school and finding plates of _________ (fill in the blank). Before that, starch staples: I had rice and beans; he had rolls and biscuits.
Coconuts and bananas around my kitchen were the norm; leftover cranberry bread and apple cobbler were his. Holiday dishes are especially interesting. Some of his basics are nearly unfathomable to my appetite. I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say that I simply can’t abide Jello-marshmallow salad. Scoop it beside savory meat and my meal is ruined. And what’s up with the creamed veggies: corn, spinach, mushrooms, etc.? Likewise, humongous breakfasts at the break of dawn are not in my DNA. I’m a brunchin’-lunchin’ lady. Understand, my husband’s from a Midwestern family. My momma’s Puerto Rican. The difference in palates is night and day.
I humbly concede that I got lucky: My husband is an adventurous eater. He didn’t blink the first time my grandma served pasteles, which, on first glance, look like banana leaf-wrapped mud pies. On the other hand, I’m a terribly picky-eater. I don’t vary from my routine staples. So often, our back and forth memory food swaps are on opposite ends of the culinary spectrum. But when we hit something we both love, oh, it’s a magic; and even more meaningful are the memories we share:
“Remember that coffee cardamon quail we had in Santa Fe?”
“God, yes, I dream about that thing.”
“Remember the soup you made when we both had the flu in Norfolk?”
“My 1,000 garlic cloves chicken soup.”
“Yeah, you should make that again. I love it.”
And this phenomenon isn’t limited to my household. One of my best friends emailed me today: “Sarah, I’m roasting pumpkin seeds… what’s your recipe again?” She’s making them with her three-year-old daughter for the first time. A new tradition they’re starting, and I love that her Virginia pumpkin seeds will taste like my Texas ones—that I’m a part of their pumpkin seed story.
It’s no surprise that many of my favorite novels are infused with tastes and smells, often containing pivotal kitchen or food scenes. For me, these two senses are critical to the fictional dream world. I love it when an author lets me know that the house smelled like buttered popcorn. Or that a character ate her Auntie Jane’s fudge and her mouth was filled with creamy mocha heaven. These descriptions instantaneously connect me to the characters and do as much to pull me into the novel’s setting as a beautiful landscape or lyrical description of Beethoven’s 5th.
Some of my favorites include Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. Who doesn’t feel the heartache in Quail in Rose Petal Sauce? As a child reading the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund’s unending appetite for Turkish Delights was indelible as Narnia itself. Because of Anne of Green Gables, I’ve always had a place in my mind’s palate for Raspberry Cordial. Just the name brings a memory of what I imagined it tasted like, though I’ve never had a drop. In The Great Gatsby, the ending scene where Daisy and Tom eat cold chicken together haunts me. I’m in the middle of reading Chris Bohjalian’s The Double Bind (an excellent book, I might add) and one of my favorite scenes is when some homeless men generously make the main character a feast of jack cheese and red pepper breakfast pie, sugar-n-butter French toast and store-bought jelly doughnuts. I can see it, smell it, taste it, hear the clinking of plates and feel the weight of the silverware. That scene will stay with me for years. And the list goes on from old classics to phenomenal contemporary works.
Foods tell stories. Anyone who argues with that need only to turn on NPR’s “Kitchen Window” or the Food Network to be wholly convinced. My husband and I were doing just that last night: Telling each other stories. It makes me wonder what tales my children will tell round their table; what stories are being told in each house on my block, in my city, back home with my family. It comforts the heart to share these moments with one another. To use a cliché, it ‘feeds the soul’. Who would’ve thought so much of rosemary chicken and roasted carrots?
Yours truly, Sarah