Nostalgia and memory are easily conjured in the presence of food and the tantalizing scents that accompany it. Such is the premise of Ratatouille, the Disney animated movie in which a stoic, unmovable, and moody food critic experiences a kaleidoscope of emotions and childhood memories upon a taste of the rustic stew from which the film receives its name. Gastronomical pleasure can be derived from the well-balanced flavors and textures of an excellent dish, as much as it can be obtained from the memories associated with the last time you ate it.
A few years ago, I sent an email to my cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and sister, requesting each person to send me a recipe or two that they considered their own. By “their own,” I meant not just recipes that they had created from novel combinations of ingredients and endless iterations of taste-testing, but also recipes that they make every year from a magazine clipping or cookbook for large family dinners, and recipes that have become staples in their own kitchens. There was no requirement for precise measurements (the lack of cups and teaspoons and prevalence of qualitative estimates, I assured them, would pose no problem), or a demand that the recipe by completely serious in intent (resulting in one drunken Christmas cake recipe that explicitly instructs the cook to imbibe much more liquor than is actually incorporated into the cake itself, and one that we still aren’t quite sure will successfully result in an edible structure). My motivation behind this was to amass a collection of dishes that we associated with family, from which I could reference a recipe during a week when my cooking felt particularly uninspired, or when I craved a reminder of home. I distributed the collection of recipes to the family when we were all together for Christmas that year, to exclamations of delight.
Recently, I stumbled across a digital copy of this recipe collection on my thumb drive, squirreled away among the folders of science-related protocols, data, and correspondence from work. As I scrolled down the many pages of the word document file, I was heavily reminded of the physical and emotional nourishment I received from their caring, productive hands.
What I grew up calling pancakes during my elementary school years were large, thin, and embossed with a radiating ring pattern from the ridges on the surface of a non-stick pan. They were usually accompanied by a slightly plastic smell that came from the hand-held electric mixer, which was either due to the motor over-heating, or creation of friction between the metal beaters and the glass mixing bowl, clack-clack-clack-clack-clack. A finished stack of eight or ten rose to the unimpressive height of one and a half inches, and they would be cut into quadrants, such that the four of us arranged around the table would have a stack of quarter-circles to ourselves. They were toothsome-ly sweet, saturated with the flavor of artificial vanilla, springy and squishy inside, and never smeared with butter, only maple syrup—although one time, we had leftover tubes of cookie-decorating icing that I used to graffiti an immense amount of colored, processed sugar over the surface. For breakfast.
Only later did I realize that pancakes consumed at sleepovers at a friend’s house or served at diners and restaurants were a completely different breed altogether. For one, people seemed to prefer pancakes tall and fluffy, which I found dry and spongy and often tasting rather strongly of baking powder. Secondly, a stack of pancakes was never cut into pieces for sharing; if you wanted to share a stack, you each took a few whole pancakes, which made sense when considering that pancakes were supposed to be five or six inches in diameter, not twelve or thirteen. When I went off for college, I learned, among many other things, that these thin disks I had called pancakes were actually more closely related to a specimen known as a crepe, except that ours never actually attained crepe status because they were rudely consumed before receiving the opportunity to be filled and folded with the conventional array of sweet or savory delights. Later, when I asked my parents where they found their recipe for pancakes, which were actually crepes, they shrugged and said they found it from a pancake recipe.
Christmas eggnog, in my mind, is the perfect representation of a day in which all you are supposed to do is absolutely nothing but cook, eat, and drink with family. This characterization comes, in large part, from the definition of our family eggnog. It did not come from a carton in the dairy aisle. It was not sweet, or thick. It was almost never consistent year to year.
Eggnog was the product of a massive mixing bowl, old egg whites in some variable ratio to cream, and at least two people hovering in a splash zone and shielded from fluffy splatters of egg by flimsy dish towels, behind which they debated over whether the texture was right, whether the order of steps in the recipe made any sense, and whether the contents of the bowl before them looked at all like it did last year. I would say that time was a major ingredient. The resulting concoction was never poured, but doled into metal cups with a soup ladle, and finished with a spatter of brandy or rum and a sprinkling of nutmeg grated directly over your own cup. This last bit felt luxurious, as if my uncle could not call it done until he had dusted your cup personally with spice, despite working since the night before to separate the eggs and mix and whip and beat the thing into what I imagine liquid clouds from heaven would taste like. Every year, the cold metallic surface of the cup against my teeth, combined with the surprisingly fluffy eggnog foam and the sharp, bitter taste of the alcohol, never fails to take me by surprise. This initial reaction is always the same—even the year when my aunt had accidentally made omelets with the reserved egg whites, and we didn’t have enough eggs, and the grocery stores were closed, but somehow, we still ended up with homemade eggnog.
III. PORK RIBS
People are very loyal to barbecue ribs, perhaps irrationally so. Charred, fall-off-the-bone, slathered with barbecue sauce, fatty, crispy: each of these words could be the praise of a Food Network judge or the scathing remarks of a Yelp critic. The pork ribs that my dad is famous for would probably be described as succulent (from being marinated in a bath of condiments, including soy sauce and jalapeno peppers), sticky (glazed with a diluted mixture of honey and other flavorings), and gnaw-worthy (if you’re looking for fall-off-the-bone, look elsewhere, because these are made for sucking meat off the bone until the flavor is all gone and you’re picking your teeth for morsels).
However, my memories about barbecue are composed, in large part, of the anticipation of pork ribs rather than actually eating them. I was usually watching from inside. Smoke would billow from the grill in the backyard as my dad’s figure tended to the charcoal, ashes drifting in the breeze from the newspaper that had been used to kindle the fire. The doors and windows to the house were always tightly shut, in spite of the sun drenched afternoon outdoors, in order to keep the smoke smell from invading the house. At intervals, I would slide open the door to the yard, just a fraction, and squeeze outside to determine how long it would be before the meat hit the grill. I would feel the sun on the crown of my head, and the smoke burning my eyes when an unfortunately directed breeze gusted my way. I didn’t know how to step around the grill so that I was upwind, rather than downwind. Sometimes, I would find him scrubbing at the grill with a rough, big bristled brush, and other times, he would be turning the coals, but I would usually be shooed back inside so that my hair and clothes wouldn’t reek of smoke.
As a result, the process behind making barbecue ribs was opaque to me. All the more so, then, that when guests would praise and exclaim over his barbecue prowess, or family members would discuss the upcoming arrival of the ribs at the next summer party, I would preen a little and beam with pride. In my mind, such highly-regarded food stuff was the product of magic and mystery, as if he were wielding a wand over mystical flames rather than too-short metal tongs over a sweltering, rickety grill. Finally, after many years, I purchased a pair of long-handled metal tongs for his birthday gift, at his request. Since then, we have also purchased a basket for grilling vegetables and fish, specialized skewers, and various related items.