My rough definition of taste memory is: Flavors and food that remind me of something, or someone, else.
On Saturday I was at brewhouse in the backwoods of Maine. I had my trusty Favorite Cinnamon Roll Ever with me – flaky dough layers, a little bit of sugar and cinnamon, no glaze – and a Belgian farmhouse ale. Seeing these together flooded my mind.
In a dark, cold bar, across the street from the Christmas market (I could still see the ferry wheel from inside the bar).
Early evening, no daylight left.
Stained glass windows.
Long wooden bar.
Lots of men.
My friend Erika had taken me to a fine pastry shop earlier that day. It was a special treat for both of us. I have no idea what she ordered. I got myself the flakiest croissant I had ever seen. It was split in half the long way. And it was filled. Filled with the most luxurious creme patisserie I had ever tasted in my life. It was hardly sweet. And it seemed like there were thousands of vanilla bean seeds throughout. The creme was just thick enough to stay within the confines of the croissant. But delicate enough that I had carried it around like a new little kitten for hours that afternoon.
Erika told me we needed to wait to have it with a beer later in the day, which seemed to me both annoying (why did I have to wait?!) and unappealing (sweets and beer?!).
She helped me order some kind of Trappist ale made by Belgian monks – produced in an extremely low quantity each year. She went on to tell me the details of the beer, looking me straight in the eyes, making sure I knew the weight of what I was about to consume. It was in that moment Erika taught me a reverence and respect for fine food in a way I had never experienced.
I remember being in this bar, looking around, seeing the old men in their big wool coats and hat (with cigars) – and in these moments when I had my croissant and beer in front of me, time stopped.
That first bite of croissant was unreal. I had never tasted anything like it. The sheer quantity of vanilla bean in the creme was luxury to the max. It was so unnecessary, but so perfect. The beer was remarkable. The respect I had for it absolutely made it the best beer I had ever experienced.
We had looked at our respective treats and I had anticipated them and the beer for so long while Erika told me what she needed me to know, that every bit and each sip felt like (and was!) a gift. Her no-bullshit approach to food caught my attention and I had waited eagerly to take my first bite and sip.
Then, time started again.
Cigar smoke filled the air.
The heavy, ancient wooden front door opened and closed, letting in wet, cold December air.
Pints of beer were pushed across the counter.
But Erika and I just sat there, with our white pastry bags folded on the table, scarves and hats on the bench next to us, eating our treats, drinking our beers, and laughing about all of the men around us.
I found my way to an old Polish bar and eatery in Detroit last January – which included driving 45 minutes across the city in unfamiliar terrain, slowly looking for any signs with Polish words, the Polish crest, or big red and white flags.
I was on cloud nine, skipping down the wood steps to the dark, dingy basement of a small building. When I walked in, I kind of figured everyone would stop their conversations and welcome me with a chorus of loud “Dzięn dobry!” (good day) – but, no one looked up of course. Including the table of five Detroit policemen next to the bar.
I don’t remember everything I ordered, but I did have beet soup and rye bread. Seems normal enough. The soup was great, it was fine, nothing extraordinary. It had sloshed over the sides of the bowl on the walk from the kitchen to my seat. It needed a lot of black pepper.
Then came the rye bread. And my eyes welled up with tears immediately when I took a bite. I realized I hadn’t eaten rye bread since my Polish grandmother had died six months before. The last time I had eaten it, we ate it together.
Taste memory, it’s a funny thing. It can really sneak up on you.