My earliest memory of food is as a kindergartner going to a creamery in northern California.
My memory is a bit shoddy, but I remember it was a bit wet and dreary that day. All my classmates and I shuffled through the barn and processing area. They handed all of us a small cup of fresh cow’s milk. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before. It was warm and had a distinct taste like the smell of the farm.
If I think about it really hard, I can taste it.
The funny thing is that I have very few memories from the three years we lived in California.
I remember the constant splinters in my knees and hands that I got from the school playground, which was covered in bark. I remember learning Spanish from a preschool teacher.
And I remember losing a tooth because I flipped the rind of an orange inside out and put it in my mouth like all the other kids were doing. But when they took theirs out, a tooth wasn’t stuck in the rind and their gums weren’t bleeding.
I also remember a small deli that we would stop at on the way to the beach to get sandwiches. The crusty sourdough bread was to die for, even for a 5-year-old.
Those are true memories — not the ones that I remember because other people told me about them or because they came from pictures or home videos. These are the ones that if I dig deep enough and close my eyes, I can see and feel them.
For a friend of mine, it was his grandmother’s fried oysters that he ate each Christmas until he was 10 years old. The family would walk into her house and the smell of ocean would overtake him. But the smell was deeper than just saltwater, it was also a smell of love and laughter and family.
When his grandmother died, another family member took over the tradition, but it was never the same. The love was still there, but not the smell or the taste.
When I asked a small group of friends and family what their first memories of food were many of them told me bad memories: throwing up squash as a youngster, not eating for three days because they didn’t want to eat a stuffed pepper for dinner and — my favorite — a father telling his daughter that a dog bone tasted like a saltine cracker (it didn’t).
My food memories vary, too. I know that I love my mother’s fettuccine alfredo and fajitas and remember that she always served homemade applesauce with pork chops when I was growing up. But I can’t remember specific dinners or breakfasts like I can some of those afternoons when we went to the deli for a sandwich on fresh sourdough bread.
It’s really amazing to me that with all the meals that we eat for our entire life that we can’t remember more. Or maybe that’s why.
After eating three meals a day for 30 years, I can only remember a specific handful of them. What is even more puzzling to me is that I can remember a field trip to a California dairy 25 years ago but not what I made for dinner last Tuesday.
I was looking through my computer a few months ago for photos from the past year. I opened several folders of pictures from our travels. Many of them are of the food we ate and the beer we drank. (Actually, between the two of us, both photographers, we have more photos of food and beer than we have of ourselves).
Photos help bring back memories. But from it, I only remember what I ate and that I liked it.
But a memory like the field trip or grandmother’s fried oysters really floods the senses. The feel, the taste, the smell all come back — and with those come a sense of rightness with the world.