Saturday, December 19, 2009

Memory on my tongue

Showing "Ratatouille" to my middle school kids the day before Christmas break, I watched Anton Ego put the ratatouille in his mouth and be instantly transported back to age 8 - back to his mother's kitchen where she served her own version of the peasant vegetable stew. The one bite of food had a profound effect on him. It tasted so like a meal he had eaten before - a meal that was tied to his emotions - and he could not help have his heartstrings tugged on by the dish cooked up by Remy the rat.
This sensory experience is one I am familiar with. It is true that our senses can pick up on something and target the one area of our brain that stores an emotionally charged memory.
As a grad student in France, the university I attended offered an atelier de cuisine, which I couldn't wait to sign up for. For about $100 you got 4 cooking lessons and then you ate the meal you just cooked. Sounded like a bargain to me.

Jean Montangard was - and probably is still - one of France's top and only vegetarian chefs. He had us peeling and cutting vegetables, cleaning fish, grating cheese, whisking egg whites while we learned French and learned how to cook many French specialties. I loved the first appetizer we made: beignets de fleurs de courgettes. So light and so crispy, served with a tomato basil sauce. I was dying that we only had 2 each. Anytime I saw this on a menu in Nice, I ordered it.

Fast forward about 8 or 10 years and I had moved from my home of 17 years to a new place I was no too crazy about. I had left behind dear friends and family and we not feeling that I fit in.
To cheer me one cold winter night, my DH took me to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. The special contained some fleurs de courgettes, thought I think they were listed as braised which sounded unappetizing to me. I am not a fan of cooked spinach, cabbage or collard greens or the like. The waiter came to take my order and we chatted a bit about fleur de courgettes and he asked if I wanted him to ask the chef if he could fritter them up for me and of course I waved him off - not daring to change the chef's daily selection or ask for something special just for me.

When the meal was served, there they were - my beignets de fleurs de courgettes. I could not believe it. The chef did something off the menu - for me? I am no high roller who walks in and expects to get all he wants with a snap of his fingers. I tasted and.... yes, there it was --the whole of that summer in Nice came pouring back into my mind. The sound of all that French rolling into my ears for hours; the smell of Yves Rocher suntan lotion; the feel of the rocks, hard and smooth, under my bamboo beach mat; the beautiful blue green color of the Mediterranean out my dorm window, and perfectly reflected moonrises from the same window. That summer I became fluent in French. That summer I lived out a dream.

So I am chewing and crying and my undemonstrative DH is looking at me like I am a total kook. And they were just so good. And the chef has no idea what effect his frying had on me. And I wanted to go back to that summer. That summer of adventure when I was brave and went out to try new things and I survived. And that spoke to me. I realized this new place was an adventure too and that I would make it through. And I did.

Anton loved the rat's cooking. One taste and the tongue transmits to the memory center of the brain to recall something long forgotten. How perfectly the Pixar people captured that idea of how we remember and why we love certain smells and tastes.

Writing this on a cold rainy winter night has me closing my eyes, trying to remember...the pink bourgainvilla that grew by the dorm entrance, the leek quiche in the cafeteria, bright cicada or olive fabrics sold in the souvenir shops, the salty sea, lavender, the pastel colors in Old Town, salmon in beurre blanc sauce, daube provencal, tarte au citron.....