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Table Talk: The food we remember

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A weekly blog about food, farmers and everything in between.

My first solo cooking endeavors this summer have been both more and less successful than I expected them to be.

Independent of my parents’ cooking and free of college dining halls, my roommate and I have developed a routine. We switch off cooking and washing dishes, and whoever owes the other one money does the grocery shopping. Every weekend we sit down and outline what we will eat for the first two or three days of the next week. After three days, we eat whatever we can pull together from the refrigerator, supplemented with occasional runs to the grocery store. But nonetheless, we eat enough protein, enough vegetables and enough carbohydrates. In that respect, we do well for ourselves.

A week ago I made breaded chicken cutlets, which my brother and I christened “crunchy chicken” long ago. When I was younger my father had always let me pull the chicken through the raw egg and coat it with breadcrumbs, parsley and Romano cheese. The cooking was another story — I’d never cooked the chicken myself, just watched the process from across the kitchen.

What I ended up with looked remarkably like crunchy chicken. The next day I followed my grandma’s recipe for meatballs, and this week I made curry from the galanga root and sweet basil my Thai aunt had given me over the weekend.

Everything I made tasted good, my roommate assured me. But to me, not one of those dishes tasted like it was supposed to.

On Tuesday night, my roommate and three friends we’d invited over sat on the couches in the living room, eating jasmine rice and curry out of bowls. Sitting there, it occurred to me what was wrong, what had been wrong all along. The foods I was making did taste like the versions my relatives had taught me, but I wasn’t eating them crowded around a table with twenty family members laughing and talking. Nor was I in the warm dining room at my parent’s home, surrounded by classical music and the smell of my dad’s cooking. The food wasn’t worse than I remembered it, it was just different.

It turns out that I’m not the only one with such clear memories of special meals. Stop anyone on the street, and if they’re not in a hurry, chances are they’ll be able to supply you with a detailed description of their own most vivid food memories.

“I think we remember food most when we have emotional connections to them,” said Katherine Shirer of Ferrisburgh.

Justin Kennington, who is from Utah but who is studying at the Bread Loaf School of English this summer, had to think for some time to choose a memory. Finally he chose one.

“The best meal I ever had was self-caught cod, self-grown corn on the cob, and rice — which we did not grow ourselves.” he laughed. “It was good because it was all from our family.”

Shirer’s most vivid food memory was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans. “I grew up in the south,” she explained.

Her daughter, Natasha, chimed in: “I like noodles!” She hid behind the bag her mother was carrying, then added, “with cheese.”

Barbara Pelter, who was visiting the area from Colorado, stared into the distance, trying to narrow down her memories of food. “Sweet corn in July. Radishes later. Summer foods,” she said. “But for a favorite memory, I’d have to say it’s my father’s favorite meal. Fried chicken, potato salad, sliced tomatoes and chocolate cake. We had it a lot when I was younger.”

“Mealtime is family time,” said Claud Hooker, of Johnsburg, N.Y. “We love summertime in this part of the world, with the fresh vegetables, fruits and berries.”

His son, Krishna, chimed in. “I like sweets!” he said.

But his favorite food, said Krishna, is broccoli and chicken.

To Kevin Perry, who is from Burlington but sells his “Perry’s Pickles” at the Middlebury Farmer’s Market, food memories were even broader. “Holidays, special occasions. Sweet foods, hearty meals, going out to eat,” he listed.

His favorite food, he said, was pickles.

Food has a deep connection with place in our memories. The meals I’ve eaten surrounded by my family are also the ones I remember having the best food. It’s not that we can’t appreciate good food when we’re alone — I have vivid memories of eating cornflakes while reading the first Harry Potter book, way back before there were seven books in the finished series. But looking back, I don’t remember meals that I ate when I was unhappy. It’s not that they weren’t great food, and it’s not that I didn’t appreciate them at the time. But when we remember food, we remember everything that surrounded us as well.

So instead of trying to recapture those memories here in Middlebury, perhaps it is time for me to begin creating new ones.

What are your most vivid food memories? What are your favorite foods, from childhood or after? Leave a comment below!

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