I had the same lunch every day for the entirety of first grade – Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a grilled cheese. I got to come home for lunch because my school was so overcrowded we went on shifts and I got the early one and was done with my school day by 12:30.
My lunch seemed like a worthy reward for standing in what felt like the dark of night with my mother waiting for the bus. That lunch, particularly the grilled cheese, is still a comfort food touchstone for me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between food and memory lately. I just finished watching “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. It’s a wonderful and mouth-watering series about six renowned chefs from all over the world. Each chef talks passionately about the influence of personal memory on their cooking.
“I’m trying to take you back to when you were a child,” says Italian chef Massimo Bottura. He learned a lot about cooking by hiding under his grandmother’s kitchen table as his older brothers chased him. She taught him how to roll tortellini and today that is one of the most popular items on the menu at his three Michelin star restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena.
I miss a lot about my parents, not the least of which is some of those foods of my childhood that they prepared. My mother was a very good cook, far surpassing the casserole queens of her generation. She was modest about her culinary skills and always said,” If you can read, you can cook.”
I’m not sure I believe that. I think most folks can follow a recipe but it takes a lot more than that to be a cook who creates memories.
Growing up, we always got to pick the dinner for our birthday. I always picked stuffed Italian shells with my mother’s homemade tomato sauce. I have her sauce recipe and will make it from time to time. I can see her hands in my own when I open all the cans of tomato sauce and paste and mix them together.
And I think that’s where the secret lies with the best cooks – the hands. My mother had beautiful elegant hands and I loved watching the Dance of the Christmas Cookies as she would roll out the dough and cut the perfect shapes and press them on to the baking sheet.
I think of all the best cooks I know, and I’m quite fortunate to know a delicious plenty, and they all have interesting hands that move quite gracefully when they cook. And I loved watching the hands of the chefs in “Chef’s Table.” Their movements are deft and deliberate at times and then tender and almost poetic at others.
I’m telling you – it’s in the hands. I love watching my wife cut up vegetables. It’s sweet and sexy all at the same time. And she’s always smiling while she’s doing it – even when she doesn’t know I’m watching.
Holidays are rich with food memories. My mother made an extraordinary cheese danish from scratch – the recipe was two full long pages. We had it every Christmas morning and while I do have the recipe, I haven’t managed the courage to attempt it myself. Just thinking about it gives me a lump in my throat.
My father made oyster stew on Christmas morning and I have replicated that pretty well but in all honesty, it doesn’t taste as good without him to share it. Dad had a small repertoire when it came to cooking but what he did, he did damn well. His fried flounder is the best I have ever had and Lord knows I’ve done a lot of comparison tasting.
It’s funny when I think about it now, but my father was on to the farm to table movement long before it became trendy. He grew up on a farm and deeply appreciated and respected everything about that – the animals, the vegetables and the people who “worked the soil” as he liked to say.
He had a large garden and nothing made him happier than making a cucumber and tomato salad every evening for dinner from the bounty he just brought in. He never took food for granted and he was the kindest of audiences when you cooked for him. We never left a church pot luck supper that he didn’t say, “Your mother’s dish was the best.”
I love that part of his ashes were scattered in two different tomato gardens when he died 13 years ago. And the harvest in both gardens that summer was prolific. Coincidence? I think not.
The connection between our taste buds and our hearts is a profound one, marinated in memory. Chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia, beautifully articulates this association in an episode of “Chef’s Table” when he says, “I’m trying to take people back to these times in their lives when people who loved them cooked for them in a way that was really meaningful and satisfying.”
It’s time for lunch and I suddenly have a longing for a grilled cheese.