|Remembrance of Foods Past|
I spend far too much time dreaming of foods from my past. As a child in Savannah, Georgia, I relished dishes made by my grandmother's cook, Evelyn Brown: tomato-bread casserole sweetened with Vidalia onions; crowder peas boiled with fatback; she-crab soup drizzled with sherry; ham biscuits so flaky and salty they chapped my lips. But in 1972 my family left Savannah in search of greener pastures, a discombobulation that had at least one positive side effect. We got to sample a new cuisine.
This wasn't our only move. Over the years we left a trail of gustatory losses. I'd just gotten used to Puerto Rican pastelones de carne when we headed to Cincinnati. There I tasted coneys, hot dogs topped with Cincinnati chili and American cheese. Not only did my family move a lot; my sisters and I also shuffled between divorced parents. Vacationing in Maine with our father we'd devour whoopie pies. On Martha's Vineyard with our mother, we'd dig through steaming seaweed to get to clams, new potatoes, and corn. In New York City it was hamantaschen, hollow triangles of shortbread filled with poppy seeds for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Just as the past dims with time, so do the foods that were such a part of it. Like lost memories, some of these no longer exist. In Puerto Rico our Spanish teacher and babysitter, Lucky Marchese, sometimes rewarded exceptionally good behavior with strawberry iced tea. How did she make it? "The fresas go in the dryer," she finally told us, "round and round until they turn into a powder, then I throw in the tea, and it goes round and round, and ecco - tea with strawberries!" Now when I order sweet tea, if I catch a bit of blush in the glass, I imagine strawberries tumbling like red balls in the clothes dryer.
For my late grandfather Scardaddy, chocolate was the sine qua non. Ever on the lookout for new forms of it, he discovered chocolate chewies at Savannah's Gottlieb's Bakery, dense cookies full of rich cocoa and a smattering of pecans. Scardaddy always bought several bags at a time, hiding one from his eighteen grandchildren. When Gottlieb's went out of business, Scardaddy was crushed. A few years later we heard it had sold the recipe to another bakery, but the new chewies resembled the old ones the way a cheap California ros resembles French burgundy. They made the loss even more unbearable.
Back at Brown, I gained the obligatory "freshman fifteen," thanks to Dunkin' Donuts and pizza from the Gate. I also blame the old-fashioned Thayer Market. One day, strolling through the bakery department, I noticed a pile of pinkish-brown sweets, each coiled into a little O. They looked disgusting. The
gentleman behind the counter said, "Wine biscuits - try one," and to be polite I did, expecting something hard and musty. Instead, I inhaled a bouquet of underlying Chianti, with notes of olive oil, flour, black pepper, and ten other unidentifiable
flavors. "I'll take a dozen," I said and ate the entire bag. Whenever I returned to Thayer Market, I saved the bakery for last, but by the time I reached the checkout all that was left of my baked goods was an oil stain on white paper.
Thayer Market long ago gave way to a chain store, the wine biscuits disappearing into the ether of corporate homogenization. But my craving for them and all the lost foods of my youth persists. For Proust, the madeleine conjured up bittersweet memories of an older era. For me, the memories conjure up the foods; I mentally taste each one through sheer imagination and will. Having lost these foods, I preserve them, fresh and vibrant, in the palate of my mind.
K. W. Oxnard is a writer living in Savannah, Georgia.