It’s funny how memory works to me. How a sound, a photograph, a smell and even a taste one your tongue can transport a person from a walking, talking and semi-reasoning adult into a blathering idiot of a teenager. This sort of experience recently just happened to me. It was a strange journey to me. Long forgotten memories of my youth, and mind you, these are actually good memories, were jarred from my childhood id and released fully onto my hippocampus.
So if you’ll bear with me, and be patient, I’ll take you down the road of the cause and results of this recent exploration into my teen years. More specifically, a trip to Port Plaza Mall with my family for Christmas shopping.
I was standing in the kitchen of my part time employer, it was about 6:15 pm, there were only a few customers in the restaurant and the Chef and I were talking about nothing and everything. It was then that I realized the Chef had made a soup that in my fifteen years of working there I’d never tried. It was New England Clam Chowder. Now, it is customary for waiters and waitresses to try new dishes so that they can explain the food to the customers. It’s common practice, trust me. So I picked up a small dish, poured some soup into it and then took a spoon and placed a mouthful of the creamy goodness into my mouth.
I don’t really know how to explain what happened next. I can tell you that I’ve eaten a lot of clam chowder in my past. Some from cans, some reportedly homemade. Some very unsatisfying. Some rather delicious but none as amazing as that first spoonful of my Chef’s have ever transported me back in time to the first taste of clam chowder.
This soup was simply amazing. The diced potatoes were of the perfect texture, the crème didn’t sit heavily on the palette and the clams had just a hint of salt and tender enough that you could bite through them in one quick chomp. Seasoning wise, it was amazing, not too salty, the perfect amount of pepper and just a hint of sweetness. All in all, it was the trigger for my first taste of this under-appreciated soup.
I felt like I was thirteen again, sitting in a department store cafeteria at Port Plaza Mall in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Alongside my teen self, my three sisters, my mother and my soon to be mothers second husband. He was the one who had ordered the clam chowder. I was curious about the soup. Because up until that time the only soups I could remember having were chicken noodle and my mother’s split pea soup. I hate split pea soup to this day, almost as much as I hate Brussel sprouts. I hate them so much that I truly believe that split pea soup is the piss of the devil and Brussel sprouts are the devils dingleberries. YUCK!
In my mind, while standing in the stark white kitchen under florescent lights and surrounded by stainless steel counters, I was slowly dipping my spoon into a bowl of cafeteria style clam chowder not knowing what to expect. I remember taking that first tentative bite of the soup, how the pale looking meat of the clam seemed so foreign to me and the chunkiness of the potato stood out above the rim of the spoon and the little green flake of what I learned later was chives seemed very inviting to my youthful palette. I was stunned. Amazed and completely enthralled. I wanted more. The soup was salty, juicy, filled with pepper, had a nice earthy tone to it and in my mind, all I could picture were the sea-gulls screaming on the beach along Green Bay’s beaches and along the Fox River. I wanted more. I got it. I was told I could order a bowl for myself, which I did and as soon as it was delivered I devoured it like a starving kid in a third world country.
The soup, in my youth was just the appetizer. Growing up in Wisconsin, the only appetizer I’d ever had was fried cheese curds. Tasty, fattening and filled with fat and bad cholesterol. In other words… the perfect appetizer. Also, you don’t really need any dipping sauces. When this balding, white haired man ordered a Rueben Sandwich, I immediately ordered the same thing. Even though I knew absolutely nothing about a Rueben Sandwich. Hell, the only sandwiches I knew were peanut butter and jelly, liverwurst on onion, bologna and cheese and lastly, the classic grilled cheese.
So when the waitress delivered the food and quickly placed a steaming plate of grilled pastrami and sauerkraut in front of me and a mile high pile of fries, I had no idea what to do with it. I looked around the table, everyone was ingesting their meals. I saw this man who was soon to be my father figure smearing onto the edge of his sandwich some brownish-yellow mustard. I looked down at my plate and saw a small cup filled with the same mustard, I copied his actions. When he took a bite, I took my first bite of a Rueben.
My mind was blown, the crispy, crunchy and butterieness of the bread, the soft succulent and sour flavor of the sauerkraut, the tender, pickled meat all surrounded by the bitterness and joy known as brown mustard made my taste buds stand up and applaud. My mind was literally blown. The things that were going on in my mouth seemed to have extended their tendrils of goodness throughout my body and I was certain I was convulsing uncontrollably. When I looked around the table at my fellow family members, it seemed my experience was solitary. Everyone seemed to be filing an empty void in their bodies while I was going through an epiphany of gastronomical proportions. Food I’d never heard of or tasted had been thrust upon my body at the order of my own voice and I was now experiencing for the first time what can only be described as a “foodgasm”.
It was the first of many. But you never forget your first. Sure it may be buried into your cerebral cortex for endless years. However, it will be released eventually. Trust me it will.
There are a lot of food firsts for me that followed that day. I discovered a veritable cornucopia of tastes, textures and styles of mouth pleasing and more importantly, mind and body pleasing sources of protein. I still try new stuff to this day in the hopes of actually going through a similar experience. And, truth be told, I’ve had many of them to date and I hope to have many more. But rarely do I have an experience that brings me back to my youth, my innocence and my first time with people where we are all relaxed, happy and filled with joy.
Those moments, whether brought to you by food, music, television shows or even just a common agreement in views is a rare things these days. Yet they seem to happen when we need them most and they give to us a sense of hope and joy. Food and music are my choice of memory keys these days. What are yours?
Have a great week.