The chain of memory can be linked directly to the experience of a meal in context. We see and smell and touch and taste and even hear the food (not the mooing or the clucking but the sizzling and stirring) that takes us to places we always want to be but maybe can never quite return.
The unhurried evolution of food is part of tradition that can bend and adapt to changing tastes and changing times. And if this change is slow enough, the memories and feelings attached to the experiences of meals with family and friends will evoke a constant fond whole-body memory until the end of time. There are, however, events that can upset that memory, for food is not the only factor to consider.
Growing up, food was not an anchor except on the holidays. The constant chaotic hum of 5 kids in the same space did not allow for Ward and June Cleaver meal sessions where mom and pop asked how the day was and all problems are solved around a steaming hot dinner. It was fend for yourself, fight to the death if necessary! To the victor goes the cereal! Alas, there is no milk. The horror, the horror.
Holidays, mostly Christmas and Thanksgiving, brought the anchor. Time itself was slowed. Pots and pans began to clank in the wee hours of the morn. By breakfast time, the first smells riding the backs of steam and heat began to fill the house. The anticipation of the meal precipitated the anticipation of the arrival of guests, of conversation, of the crazy aunt who was amusing unless she cornered you alone with her ample pointed bosom expecting you to take in her fabrications as fact and agree that she was sane and intelligent without cracking a smile that would certainly be a clear indication that on the inside you were laughing at her and not with her.
“Mom did you say you need help in the kitchen? Sorry Aunt Judy, I’ve got to go.”
Mom made the meals, dad made them a struggle. She would try new things and with our approval, they would be added to the menu for future meals. He would try terrible things and pout if they were not accepted and relished and applauded. With this we had a new tradition. Mom’s homemade meatballs and store bought lefse to make a fine Norwegian meatball wrap. Dad’s homemade chili that was supposed to be so much better with nearly a whole bottle of cinnamon would sit and congeal, looming like a sad time bomb that was sure to bring down the room once he realized it was not eaten. The hint would not be taken and it would be saved, perhaps another meal would benefit. No, it would sit. Not even he would have it as leftovers. And he never did figure out why meatloaf made with tiny, dense, dry salad croutons was not a smashing success. It was more of a practical joke; a good way to test the strength of your teeth.
And this was the balance for many years. Whatever deteriorations occurred within the family unit over time were paused by the approaching holiday meals. And then they got a divorce. And the context changed. At 34 I was worried about two things: Who would get custody of me and what would happen to our traditions. Neither of them jumped at the chance for custody but meals became the only guarantee of the once great and certain rituals.
The menu was the same; the preparation came from the same battered 20-year-old recipe card that told the visual story of each menu item by the stains inhabiting different corners of the paper. But, we no longer woke to the clamor of cooking and baking happening in the kitchen of a hundred year old farm house on 104 acres. No, this time we drove that morning to arrive by lunch time. Pots and pans crowded too little counter space in a first floor apartment infused with the wreak of another tenant’s cigarette snaking through inadequate duct work and the hooves of 6 year old twins running rampant in the space above. They could have been playing or dying. There was no certainty in either theory.
Mom’s boyfriend was there, the 3rd in 6 months. This time no pictures would include him until we knew he was going to stay and treat her right. This time there was no extended family, just siblings, our kids and mom and significant other. As we sat to eat things looked different. All the same food items were crammed on a tiny round kitchen set instead of the vast farm table we were so used to. We were stacked around the trough much like the items on the table.
The meal was nearly silent; conversation had faded into minute and brief ramblings. A day long affair had been abbreviated to a matter of moments. The flavor was gone. Context was absent. This change was not an evolution but a mutation.
Not even Kafka could write a happy ending for the giant daddy bug.
But what could be done, is being done. Adaptation by nurturing new tradition will be the norm. The food will be the same, cloned from long used recipes and we will continue to adjust the spice of context until the flavor returns.