the perils of cooking from memory
Why do we torture ourselves?
If you cook, you know:
At a certain point, we all eat something memorable that we try, desperately, to duplicate. We spend hours trying to nail that one flavor. We tweak and edit and adjust and massage, just to get the correct color and consistency and general vibe. And it’s a rare occasion that we succeed.
But should we succeed? Should the Holsteiner Schnitzel I made last month really be exactly like the famous Luchow’s version that I used to share with my father in the 1970s a few years before the place closed? I’m not asking can it be—with identical ingredients and method (and skill), of course it can. But should it? How about my grandmother’s Hungarian goulash, or my Aunt Lena’s knishes, or the cabbage strudel from the long-defunct Mrs. Herbst Bakery, or your southern grandmother’s fried chicken?
This is the foggy gray line—a culinary DMZ—across which sits the murky bog that comprises taste memory, emotional accuracy, cognitive ability, and desire; cross over into the mists, and you could disappear altogether, like James Earl Jones in an Iowa cornfield. He wants to know, to feel, and to experience a past so badly that he’s willing to fall, biblically, to desire, and vanish completely. Applied to the world of food and memory, if we succeed in duplicating something from long ago whose taste lodged itself deep in the recesses of our temporal cortex, does it somehow dilute the meaning—or the actual quality—of the original experience? And if we don’t succeed, does it tarnish the dish as we remember it?
When we long for the taste of a particular thing, is it the thing itself that we want, or the context in which we ate it?
Earlier this week, I was in Maine, co-leading a workshop with Katherine May, author of Wintering. We were talking about comfort and discomfort, and one of the questions I asked and wanted people to think about was: when we long for the taste of a particular thing, is it the thing itself that we want, or the context in which we ate it? Is it about the person who first fed us the thing, or the place where we first ate the thing? Do we love succotash because fresh corn comes only for a fleeting moment in the middle of summer, and then it’s gone? Or pastina because it’s what our grandmother’s fed us when we were ill?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Poor Man's Feast to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.