Out of the Blue
The Nose Knows
Sniffing down memory lane
By Deborah Salomon
Mmmmm — something sure does smell good.
That’s because the holidays extending from late January to late February maintain food links: Chinese New Year, Jan. 22; Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14; President’s Day, Feb. 20; Mardi Gras, Feb. 21. Black History Month is celebrated throughout February, often with soul food dinners, proof that food carves out a place in the brain’s memory centers.
The aroma of meatloaf or apple pie baking, coffee brewing or chicken frying might do the trick. Lacking the aroma, I have seen a grown man cry at the mention of his mother’s strawberry jam simmering on the back burner.
Olfactory memories die hard, or not at all. Who knows, maybe cavemen wept recalling wild beasts on the spit.
Of all the ethnic cooking in January and February, Chinese revs my engine the most. The memory is as clear as what happened yesterday — maybe clearer.
I grew up in New York City in the 1940s. My parents weren’t much for restaurants. However, since my mother was not an enthusiastic cook, I practically grew up at the Automat. PBS recently aired a two-hour documentary about these landmark cafeterias that, I’m sure, left a great many grown men crying.
Once a year, on my birthday, my parents took me to the original Ruby Foo’s, in the Theater District, not Chinatown. We had soup, rice and pressed duck. The French call these succulent ovals quenelles. To me, they were pure heaven, but what did a 7-, 8- and 9-year-old know about Asian cuisine?
I clearly remember wearing my dress-up coat and leggings (January is cold in Yankeeland), the dark restaurant interior with leather banquettes, how the waiters presented each dish with a flourish, especially to the birthday girl. I didn’t mind that I never once had a birthday party with friends. Nor did I figure out that going to Ruby Foo’s was so much easier for my mother.
She liked pressed duck, too.
For lunch at the Automat, it had to be a liverwurst sandwich and baked beans in a small brown crock. Weep, Boston, weep. This crock contained beans baked in a sweet, tomatoey sauce which formed a crunchy crust. Decades later, I spotted a similar crock in an antique shop. Everything came rushing back as the dealer ran for the Kleenex.
My husband grew up in Brooklyn. We met at Duke. What fun, recalling our favorite Automat dishes, except his were hamburger steak and mashed potatoes, mine fried scallops and creamed spinach, not an encouraging sign.
I doubt subsequent generations display such emotional attachments to food. How could they, with such a variety? Where is the purism, the authenticity? The old aunties with specialties are dying out. The local Chinese buffet is an international smorgasbord of spring rolls, French fries, mac and cheese, corn on the cob, sesame chicken, apple cobbler and chocolate pudding. Pizza concocted from a cauliflower crust topped with kale has lost its Italian accent. Valentine’s Day may still suggest filet mignon and cheesecake, but fading fast are happy memories of chitlins.
Yet Groundhog Day felt the need to field a commemorative dish called Groundhog Pie, which, thank goodness, contains beef, not ground groundhog.
I almost threw up, learning that Turducken (chicken stuffed inside duck stuffed inside turkey) gets a boost at Thanksgiving.
What must that smell like, roasting?
No . . . I want my turkey stuffed with homemade cornbread laced with celery, onions and fresh sage. Ah, the aroma, the memories that smell triggers, both sad and happy. Make some this February; it’s never too late. PS
Deborah Salomon is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.