Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What if Your Food Memories are Bad?

The world's best chefs appear to have one large contributing factor in common to their craft: a strong and enduring memory of things they ate when they were children. These are the formative years, where small events take on large-scale significance. For example, I recall  my older brother, a petulant teenager,  sitting at the dinner table, shirtless, and noisily cracking open chicken bones to suck out the marrow; not unlike an ogre living under a bridge.  I can remember in vivid detail  the distinctive aroma created through the combination of deep-fried mini doughnuts, buttery popcorn and diesel fuel exhaust that one would find at the Canadian National Exhibition in the late 1970's.  Yet, for the life of me, I cannot recall what I ate for lunch yesterday. What is it about food memory? Why is it so powerful? How do they leave such an impression on us, and more worryingly, what if one's food memories are good?

The famous UK chef, Marco Pierre White lost is mother when he was six years old. She died shortly after the birth of his younger brother. She was Italian, and he writes at length about her; the smell of her espresso brewing in the morning, her use of olive oil and garlic (two relatively foreign ingredients in 1960's Yorkshire), her homemade pasta and how much he loved these things as a boy. He was only six years old when she died and yet he appears to have amassed an entire lifetime of food memories associated with her. Losing a mother whilst a small child likely impressed these memories more deeply. When I look at that famous photo of White; looking at his face specifically, he appears to me somehow a damaged man. The death of his mother and the abrupt end-point of these food memories, no doubt, the source of his damage. But I digress.

Marco Pierre White: The famous photo
When I was six years old, my diet consisted of Hamburger Helper, Kraft Dinner, tinned vegetables, Wonder bread and Chef Boyardee--largely instant food, even desserts.  Do I accuse my mother of being a neglectful parent? Of course not, for this is what many of the kids in my school were eating.  However, as an adult, I unashamedly loathe these things. They are not good food memories...or at least not the kind of food memories that many chefs have. 

When a problem comes along, you must whip it
Before the cream sets out too long: you must whip it

Take for example, Raymond Blanc, a two Michelin star French chef in London. His food concept is almost exclusively based on Mama Blanc's recipes and style of cooking. These are recipes with ingredients grown in the garden, cooked with love and reflecting the good taste and thrift of rural France.  Or to bring it back to Canada, Chef Michael Smith (although US born, he has adopted Canada as his country), speaks endearingly of the food memories his mother created for him, the smell of baking bread and other sweets most notably. These memories appear to be the driving force behind these great chefs. And yet, I ask again, what if you don't have much to work with? Does this compromise one's ability?

There is some solace perhaps, in some really good food memoirs. I can think of two culinary celebrities who may have similar food histories to mine, namely, Nigel Slater and Gabrielle Hamilton.  

Nigel Slater does not profess to be a chef, he prefers the term 'cook'. He does not run a restaurant (but has certainly worked in them), yet he is a towering figure in English gastronomy. He has written a column for the UK Guardian for years, has penned many award winning cookery books and has hosted his own television series on the BBC. One thing that sets him apart (as well as Gabrielle Hamilton, but more on her in a moment) is his naked candor about food, emotion and memory. He wrote a painfully honest book a few years back entitled Toast which tells the story of his childhood through food memory. Like Marco Pierre White, Nigel Slater's mother  died when he was young (and he seems to have the same damaged look about him, I might add). However, his mother was not a good cook. In fact, his descriptions of her cooking are heartbreaking: she hated to cook and was not good at it, but as was the role of all wives in postwar England, she had to do it. After the death of his mother, Slater's father eventually entered into a relationship with the housekeeper, who unlike his dead wife,  was indeed a good cook. This created tension wherein the interloping woman improved on the offerings of the dead mother. Because of this, many of the foods cooked at home, be it by his late mother, his father (who berated Slater for refusing to eat his dinner) or the 'new woman' had an emotional toxicity to it. Slater turned in solace to the popular and predictable packaged and instant foods of 1960's Britain. Cadbury chocolate, frozen Cornish pasties and instant custard. These foods were uncomplicated in their saltiness, crunchiness and sweetness. Slater's food memories involve many of the same bland and factory-made instant food I grew up on, but he has salvaged some good from them - in unhappy circumstances, the unassuming and everyday become pleasurable escapes. He took something ordinary and made it grand.

Nigel Slater
  Gabrielle Hamilton also has written beautiful, even lyrical food memories in her memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter. However, they are mixed between the pastorally romantic (a whole lamb roasted on a spit in their large and leafy property in rural Pennsylvania, bottles of beer chilling in a local brook), to the mundane: deep-fried taco bowls from a local snack bar. Her writing unapologetically marries the guilty comfort of western industrial, packaged food with the old world, agrarian classics that 'mama used to make'. Her mother was French, her father an American artist: the ultimate bohemians - they regularly ate bone marrow and proper cured salami with French cornichons. Yet she loved, and still loves Triscuit cracker hors d'oeuvres.   Her restaurant, Prune, in New York City has a menu that is an almost  point-by-point inventory of food memories and experiences, yet not all are from childhood. She writes of a trip through Europe, where alone, exhausted and starving, she was served a small plate of cold meat and potatoes in a cafe in Amsterdam, "I don't know under what other conditions a simple, salted, warm boiled potato could ever taste as good as this tasted" she wrote.  A whole laundry list of other reminiscences including butcher-paper table cloths in a tiny Greek cafe on which your bill is written out by the owner, grilling lobster over a fire on the last day of summer, the cheese and ham crepes in France for which the eggs sit out all day without refrigeration, jelly jars as wine glasses, a perfect Negroni cocktail and the breakfast lamb sausage all appear in some way in her restaurant, literally or in spirit, and all are based on some food memory. Yet when she makes eggs Benedict - she refers to the English muffins as 'Thomases'. Europeans wouldn't have a clue what she's talking about, but I sure do! Her food memories transcend those formative childhood years, in fact, she draws more from her late teenage years right up into adulthood - much like me.

And she does this so gracefully that it comes as no surprise that Anthony Bourdin proclaimed her book the best food memoir ever written. 

Gabrielle Hamilton
So, I do indeed have food memories, albeit  not many from my childhood, but they're there. Perhaps I will put them down on paper one day.  Although to give my mom a break, I suppose there were a few bright moments in her repertoire. She could make a pretty good soup from scratch, in fact my folks had the soup racket down pretty well, as my dad was making a decent vichyssoise before he even knew what a vichyssoise was (he called it leek soup).

And then there are my kids. I hope, wish, beg, pray (and all other manner of pathetic verbs that denote a heartfelt appeal) that my kids will look back on my food as good food memories. I could not hope for anything more than that.

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