Experience flavors food as much as any spice.”
This post is inspired by an experiment in Conversations in Food Studies, “Stirring the Pot: The Performatives of Making Food Texts” (Brady et al 52-72). Participants are challenged to come up with an ingredient with both positive and negative personal associations, and must cook it for the spectators preceding a final discussion. It made me realize how even though food is universal, every individual has a very distinct experience with it.
Everyone has something they poignantly remember, for better or worse. For me, it’s hard to choose a single ingredient or even a single dish, but dinners at my great-grandparents’ house in Whiting, NJ are fond memories. They usually consisted of beef pot roast with potatoes and carrots, gravy, and Yorkshire pudding, and overstuffed apple pie showered in sugar for dessert. It’s not just the ingredients themselves or the sum of the ingredients I remember, it’s the experience of the meal itself, in its entirety – the warm plasticky smell of the sun porch with its green carpet, the sight of blue jays and cardinals outside, the pleasant, rare company of my great grandparents – my great grandfather’s humming of forgotten melodies and my great grandmother’s proud English accent undiluted by time. The authors of “Making Food Texts” might call this is the “exceptional mundane” (Brady et al. 60) – ordinary people, places, and things elevated by process and presentation – and eventually, honored in memory.
In following the experiment, I would say mung dal evokes bittersweet memories – it’s deliciously complex in taste and it reminds me of my earliest cooking days, but also of when I was broke, naive, and in a terrible relationship. In the experiment, they call this “restorative and reflective nostalgia” (Brady et al. 57). It’s amazing that mung dal can mean something entirely different to my Indian friend, for example, or to anyone else who has had it. Experience flavors food as much as any spice.
Special food memories stir strong feelings and set “rules.” They’re what drive me to always want to pair ginger ale with Chinese food and cheap lager with hot wings. My mother never let us have “brown soda” growing up, and in NJ, my summers were always highlighted by happy hours and copious amounts of buffalo sauce. I just moved to Vermont at the start of last month – I wonder what special food memories will be made here? Grilling outside has already become a tradition. The smell of snow and smoke together is already synonymous with “home.” I look forward to continuing cooking and eating adventurously as a way to get to know my new surroundings, local ingredients, and inspirations.