Food and Memories

The other day I was reading a collection of American food writing—a massive tome, actually, comprising examples of such from the entire history of America.  One of the essays mentioned the fact that, apparently, every person who cares about food has had a ‘food epiphany’ at some point in their lives.  Naturally, I started casting about in my memory to see if I had anything of the kind. 

I don’t really think I did—not the way the author meant it, anyway.  There was never a moment at which I thought “I will now CARE about food!  I will now only eat The Best Foodstuffs and PITY those who don’t!”  Well, probably the author didn’t mean it to be quite that harsh, but it did come off that way in writing. 

I have, however, had two tiny moments of what I suppose you might call clarity: moments where I suddenly realized that a certain food was good and that it had flavors that I’d never noticed before.  I don’t know if these count as epiphanies, but they were certainly formative experiences. 

The first one is rather embarrassing.  I was living away from home for the first time, and making all of my own food in my own kitchen in the requisite grad school tiny one-room apartment.  I was mostly subsisting on ramen (as one does) with occasional forays into chicken baked in canned soup and things like that.  I didn’t particularly mind.  The meals were satisfying, in their way, and I used the herbs and spices I had to vary the flavors from night to night.  Also, though, I was reading cooking magazines.  I’d gotten a subscription to Gourmet as a reward for something—good credit, I think—and I’d become fascinated by the pretty pictures.  Most of the recipes were too elaborate for my budget, if not my ambition (I’ve always had a complete inability to grasp that a recipe is too advanced for me—when I decide not to make something it’s usually from laziness, not defeatism) but every month they had one article devoted to a recipe using five ingredients.  Five ingredients, unless the five included saffron and truffles, was something I could handle. 

One month’s recipe in particular caught my eye—Chicken Piccata.  Chicken, lemon juice, capers (what were those?), parsley (and something else, surely, though I don’t remember what).  I could easily obtain all of these ingredients.  When presented with the price of capers, though, I was taken aback.  These days, three dollars for a jar of capers does not cause hyperventilation, but at the time it was so much that I almost sat down in the aisle of the market.  Even in my inexperience, though, it was obvious that capers were the point of Chicken Piccata, so HAD to buy them.  How to justify the price?  Back went the lemons—I had a few drops left in the squeezy bottle at home.  Back went the fresh parsley, and into the basket went a tiny bag from the bulk section, filled with about a tablespoon of dried parsley.  I’m sure that if someone had asked me at the time if I thought bottled lemon juice and dried parsley were as good as fresh, I would have said something like “Probably not, but it doesn’t matter.” 

And it didn’t matter, because the dish turned out beautifully.  It was delicious, and started me on a caper addiction that continues to this day, but what I really noticed about the meal was the parsley.  Yes, really—the dried parsley.  I remember the actual sentence in my head after my first bite: “Parsley has a flavor.”  I wasn’t excited: I was astonished.  After years of dealing with my sister’s and my refusal to eat anything green, I’m sure my mother had given up on fresh herbs altogether (at least on our food), and I don’t think that I’d ever eaten any kind of parsley before.  I’d smelled dried parsley at my friends’ houses, and it had smelled like grass; I’d ignored it thereafter.   This must have been fresh dried parsley, because it smelled astonishingly like the bunch of live parsley I’d almost purchased in the produce section, and it tasted just like it smelled. 

I know that I’m opening myself up to the scorn of thousands by admitting that one of my most formative food memories is based upon dried parsley, an herb widely renown as tasteless dust when dried, but there it is: it’s a true story.

My other formative food moment came earlier in my life.  I was fifteen—not “cool” by any means, but at least mildly aloof.  I was fifteen, and my stomach hurt.  My stomach hurt so badly that I began to scream and cry and call for my parents, who came running from each end of the house, convinced that I had broken a bone or put my hand through a window or something—my tolerance for pain is pretty high, and they knew it couldn’t be something tiny.  But no, no horrible disaster had taken place, my stomach just hurt.  After a few minutes of questioning it became obvious that it wasn’t my appendix or a broken rib or anything that would require a visit to the emergency room, but no one knew what it was.  My mother put me to bed with a heat pad, a cat and some Tylenol.  I sobbed for an hour or two, while my family ate dinner very quietly downstairs, speaking in whispers.  At about 8 pm, the stomachache began to wane, and by 8:30 it was gone, with absolutely no sign that it had ever been there. 

I came downstairs to the kitchen, where my mother was grading papers at the table.  She got up and handed me my leftover dinner, a bowl of rice and black bean picadillo.  I’d never much liked picadillo before, but I can remember the flavors of that particular rendition perfectly—how the tomatoes softened the beans, the juxtaposition of the hot green chiles and the sweet chopped apple, and the way that all of the ingredients melted into each other, and melded with the rice.  I had never noticed the way flavors worked together until that night and I had never been so comforted by familiar flavors.  Because of that moment alone, black bean picadillo has become, for me, the most perfect comfort food ever invented.  Even thirteen years later, if I’m craving comfort, I crave that particular picadillo recipe more than any of the typical comfort foods.  Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes: none of these can hold a candle to it. 

Herewith, therefore, I will give you an actual, written-out recipe for my mother’s black bean picadillo.  I don’t know where the recipe originally came from (a cooking magazine? the back of a can?), but I’ve never been tempted to try any of the trendier, more modern, and infinitely more authentic versions I’ve encountered since.

Black Bean Picadillo
(serves 4-6)

1 14-oz can of diced tomatoes (these days I use fire-roasted Muir Glen tomatoes)
1 15-oz can black beans
1 lb ground beef (round, not chuck or sirloin)
1 small chopped onion
1 small can of chopped mild green chiles (fresh work, but roast and peel them first)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp orange peel (dried, but fresh would be fine—just use a light hand)
1 tsp cumin
1 finely chopped apple (I’ve always used Rome apples in this even though I prefer incredibly tart apples for everything else—the soft sweetness is important)

Sauté the beef and onion together until the beef is no longer pink.  Add all other ingredients and cook over low heat, uncovered, for half an hour to forty-five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Serve over rice and melt back into your childhood.

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Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 1:48 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I can personally attest that this recipe is, indeed, delicious and the comfiest of comfort food, even without the childhood sensory memory. yummm… I may have to make some this week.

  2. Was this heavy tome Molly O’Neill’s American Food Writing (which I am cooking/blogging my way through) Or something else? For I am always on look out for these kinds of anthologies! Great blog.

  3. Indeed it was! It’s a fascinating book. Oddly, I read it backwards, starting with the more recent essays, going farther and farther back in time until I reached the beginning.


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