November Create: The Extraordinary Potency of Cheap Food

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The Extraordinary Potency of Cheap Food

A small but popular taverna in the hills of the Greek island of Kos.

Fie on Proust. I defy him. And I'll tell you why.

Proust ate a madeleine. The madeleine brought back a vivid childhood memory. You know what that tells me? People in France used the same recipe. For years. For generations. Bless their hearts. That's how to preserve memory in the kitchen.

This no longer happens. Yes, of course I associate key moments in my life, precious memories, with specific foods. But those foods, and the secret of exactly how they tasted, are lost in the shuffle of cheap-food history.

I feel like Arkady Balagan, the protagonist of the short-lived tv series Endgame. Balagan, an agoraphobic chess grandmaster, lives in a Vancouver hotel. He keeps ordering a specific Russian dessert, one he loved as a child. The chef, who is a true professional, keeps trying to reproduce it, but Balagan rejects each new version contemptuously. Finally, the chef discovers the secret: Balagan grew up in the Soviet Union. To reproduce the dessert as Balagan remembers it, the chef needs to use the cheap ingredients available in late-Soviet Russia. He does, and the chess player's eyes light up. Now, that tastes like home!

All the things I can never find:

  • Chicken salad that tastes like Mrs Weaver's Chicken Salad, the stuff that came in the waxed tub in the Kroger's on Summer Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1950s. Now, that would make me a kid again. I could eat a whole tub of the stuff. It was mostly green (from the minced herbs).
  • The kind of pizza you used to get frozen when I was in high school. Take away that gourmet nonsense. I want cheap, hot, runny cheese, and plenty of it.
  • The kind of Schmalz my friend Iris put on our sandwiches in Bonn. It came in a tub from the local butcher shop.
  • The exact taste of the meatballs and potato salad that was the Friday Kaufhalle special downstairs from where I worked in Cologne.
  • Gyros from the corner place in Xanthi. (It was nothing like what's called 'gyros' in the US.) Yeah, Akis' grandma said it was 'cow's ears', but boy, was it good. Cut fresh off the rotisserie, with a side of tzatziki and some greasy fries.
  • Mrs Weaver's Greek cousin: melitzanosalata (aubergine salad) in a plastic container from the corner grocery in Athens. No chef could (or would) make it. It's irreproducible.

My grandmother's biscuits? Gone with the wind. My mom's way of creatively misinterpreting a fudge recipe? In the past. The twice-baked toast and the homemade chili the school lunch ladies cooked up once a week in winter? Alas, but a memory. Food of two continents and half a hundred cooks, all lost to me in that distant country whither only a time machine could transport one. . .

Pah. Don't talk to me about Proust. Come to think of it, if I had a cup of Maggi split-pea soup cooked over a hotplate, with a buttered roll and a chunk of Edam, I might just be able to conjure up the very day my next-door neighbour in the apartment house in Beuel drawled out that I absolutely had to read this passage of Du côté de chez Swann, it was so enlightening. . .

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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