Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Two Tastes.

Been reading a few books about tastes and food memories and its inspired me to write some of my own.  At this point I can't really design a recipe (I can follow one to great result, but not create one), so I'm not really in a place to have a 'food blog' of the recipe type, but I do like to write about food.  Like many things, I think eating is often about both the food and the surrounding events and feelings.  If this is interesting at all, I'd recommend Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain and Toast by Nigel Slater, who are both actual writers who sometimes write this kind of thing really, really well.

Fireman's Festival fried fish and french fries
It is one of the best times of the year.  At the end of the street I live on: a carnival.  A scrambler, a giant slide, a ring toss, bingo.  Lining the alley between the field and the police station: food stands operated by locals.  Funnel cake.  Italian sausage.  Hamburgers.  Lemon shake-ups.  All made by people once a year.  Not by restaurants and chefs, or even professional cooks, not by traveling carnies, not by food vendors, but by fireman and church ladies, probably the exact same way they've been making them for 40 years.  There are no fancy oils, no fusions, no mis en place or food handling posters.  There is a lot of laughing and talking to the passers by, who undoubtedly know the cooks.  I take my $5 straight to the fish fry and the french fry booths.  I cannot wait for the fries to cool so I repeatedly burn my tongue and lips on hot oil as my teeth snap the shoelace-thin browned shell and steam snakes out with the fluffy insides.  After the initial bites I douse them with malt vinegar and pump on Heinz ketchup from a giant can, warm from being in the sun all day.  I carry my food to some bleachers nearby so I can free my hands from having to hold two red-and-white paper boats filled with food.  Fish sandwich now, no trace of frying oil but crisp and flaky, between a sesame seed bun.  Tartar sauce oozes out from the bite and plops onto the paper boat.  I forget the rides and the games and the band crooning "Rock Around the Clock" and eat with total concentration.  It is to this day that I have never tasted fries or a fish sandwich so perfect.

Christmas Duck
Christmases when I was young were glorious affairs, not so much because they were fancy but because they were a childhood dream.  At the time my family was large, with aunts and uncles on both sides, two sets of grandparents, my own married parents, a few cousins, and an overabundance of cats, and everyone came together for Christmas.  Having got church over the night before at an eve service, I got three Christmas celebrations - one at home with my parents and brother with pancakes or eggs and fruit and cookies for breakfast, one at one set of grandparents' house for a quiet lunch of soup and sandwiches and cookies, and one at another set of grandparents' house for a buffet dinner overflowing with dishes and cookies.  There were many cookies.

Everyone in my family is always doing something.  TVs are always on.  Someone is cleaning something and someone else wants to show you an article they found in the paper and someone wants to try something on and someone is building a fort behind the couch.  Someone is always in the kitchen, cooking, drinking tea, watching TV.  There is very little sitting around relaxing.  Holidays were, if nothing else, an amplification of that spirit.

My grandma's house was cozy, with dark wood, old fashioned wallpaper, Victorian-esque furniture covered in cat hair.  She always tried to clean but it never managed to get done in time.  There was a great big fat tree in the sitting room laden with legitimately antique ornaments and tinsel that went down just far enough to be out of cat-reach.  My grandma herself buzzed around the kitchen for the majority of our visit, hopping from oven to toaster oven, shouting not unkindly to my grandfather to check on a thing or do a thing while she did another thing.  The upright mixer never shut off.  Despite valiant efforts few people could help her.  Grandma was of the generation and type of person who never wrote anything down as far as a recipe goes and couldn't really tell you what to do.  Grandpa could help because that's just how they were together.  I was often underfoot trying to hurry the preparations, just on the verge of passing out with anticipation because supper wasn't done yet and we couldn't open our presents till after people ate, and people eat forever. 

A crescendo to the flurry of activity.  Everyone carries things into the dining room, where a massive wood buffet squeezed in next to an even more massive round dining room table, doubtless a decorator's nightmare in that it took up 80% of the room.  Cozy.  I was much then as I am now - if there is a buffet I want some of everything.  Of course then I did not have quite an expansive of a pallet as I do now.

This was the year that there was ham, of course, but also duck.  I had never had duck.  Had never seen duck dead and dressed out.  It looked like a small, auburn chicken.  I would have it!  I was warned that it might not be what I expected.  I would have it!  They ate it in all the Christmas movies (chief among them A Christmas Carol and The Little Princess and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, where maybe neither actually featured a duck eating scene but I was pretty sure about they ate it). And so my mom cut for me a slice of duck.  Duck, however, is not the same as a chicken.  It tastes so much more like duck than chicken tastes like chicken.  Oil oozed all over my tongue.  Red gaminess meant chewing and chewing and chewing some more.  I did not finish the duck.  Among all the food, no one noticed the sliver of meat pushed to the side next to a pie crust and a sprinkling of peas, and this was not a clean-your-plate type of family.  I am not sure if it was cooked poorly or if I just didn't know what real meat tasted like, but it was many years before I would eat duck again. 

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