If we are what we eat, then I am memory. Every experience I’ve ever had is anchored in my brain by the food I was eating at the time, or even the food I wanted to eat. Most people have memory triggers by certain smells, feelings, and food. I have those too, but the entry to my memory hall is always through my mouth – through food. My earliest memory is, classically, with the taste of milk from a bottle and my mother’s presence. I was given a special formula made with sweetened condensed milk because – at that time – a fat baby was a healthy baby. I remember the rich velvety almost overpowering sweetness.
Later on in early childhood, memory is a tomato picked directly from the garden and still warm from the sun. Fried chicken on Sundays after church and jars of ice tea always reminded of faith and forgiveness. To this day when I eat fried chicken, I always taste a day in May and am a girl again in the Sunday School choir.
My fondest memory is of being with my best friend, in her car decades ago. We are young girls – probably 16 – and it is early evening. We are talking and giggling and eating the most incredible Roman yellow Italian bread with Colby cheese. My sister would bring this bread home from New York City every time she visited. Big shopping bags full of Italian bread from a bakery near her apartment. My sister brought her own food because she didn’t think we had any good food in Virginia. To this day, when I ask my best friend what is her favorite meal ever – she replies “Roman yellow Italian bread and Colby cheese.”
I broke up with a boyfriend while eating a dinner of shrimp and grits. The shrimp was so fresh and the grits were cheesy with big hunks of pancetta and the whole thing fried in bacon drippings. Our entire relationship revolved around food and that is why I think it lasted so long. He smelled of strawberries and rosewater and his kisses tasted kind of fresh and briny at the same time like the Carolina coast.
Pesto sauce reminds me of my late husband. For some reason, during that marriage we ate a lot of pine nuts: pesto, pine nuts and hummus, toasted pine nuts on everything. I can conjure up the taste of pine nuts right now, and his memory comes flooding back and his face comes in focus just like a snap shot.
Food tastes are the last to go. I had a friend who died of a brain tumor. Her last tastes requirements were bitter and sweet. Near the end she lives off of lemons and chocolate pudding. At the very last, when she could not speak, move, see, and barely swallow I gave her chocolate pudding, and she would moan and groan like it was heaven on earth. Another friend, who died of colon cancer, ate nothing but mozzarella cheese – and not the kind you get in just any store. She wanted the real deal. I ran all over Washington, DC to find a salty baseball of mozzarella that would take my friend back to her happier healthier days in Lake Como, Italy.
My last taste will be of my mother’s Texas sheet cake. All my memories will be tied up in that final bite. The strong sweetness of youth, the fullness of womanhood in my mouth, and the velvet finish on the tongue. And since my mother always scorched her cakes a little, some burnt offerings of a little hell fire. I will remember it all.