Sifting Through Food Memories

Dabbawala,the lifeline of Mumbai.

The Indian city of Mumbai is home to the ‘dabbawala’ service wherein boxes of hot lunch make their way from homes to customers’ offices.   PHOTO: Satyaki Ghosh

Food memories. Absolutely universal, absolutely distinctive. Across cultures, across borders. United by the emotions they evoke – nostalgia, love, warmth, hope. While travel memories are notched up by the miles, they are bound to feature a food memory or two. Of cultures, smells, people, faces, history.  Jacques Pepin, noted French chef, writes of his in The New York Times:

There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories. But these memories of food are very powerful. My earliest memories of food go back to the time of the Second World War. My mother took me to a farm for the summer school vacation when I was 6 years old with the knowledge that I would be lodged and fed there. I cried after she left and felt sad, but the fermière took me to the barn to milk the cow. That warm, foamy glass of milk is my first true memory of food and shaped the rest of my life.

I also remember as a young child helping my mother in our family restaurant, washing bottles for the wine and peeling potatoes. I began my formal culinary apprenticeship in 1949 at age 13 in the kitchens of the Grand Hôtel de l’Europe in my hometown, Bourg-en-Bresse, near Lyon.

Going back as far as my memory can take me, I see a kitchen in my vision of my mother, my aunts, my cousins, and I visualize a specific dish for each of them.

For my mother, what comes to mind first are the small fingerling potatoes, fresh out of the garden, with skin that would slide off when rubbed by your fingers. These potatoes were simply sautéed in butter to a crisp exterior and served with an escarole salad dressed with mustard, vinegar and peanut oil scented with garlic.

I recall that in my Aunt Hélène’s chicken in cream sauce with morels, she actually used dried gyromitras, the false morels with intense flavor that are designated as poisonous in most books on mycology. These never did any harm to us. Remembering my Aunt Aimée brings to mind a shoulder veal roast made in a cast-iron pot. Browned in butter and flavored with onion, it created incredibly flavored natural juices that I have never been able to duplicate.

My greatest ritual is sitting every night at the dining-room table with my wife and sharing our meal and one, sometimes two, bottles of wine and discussing the events of the day. Throughout the last five decades, this daily ritual has been ingrained so profoundly within us that we could not live without it, and this is how food memories are made.

Read more here.

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