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The Taste Of Memory

I’ve relearned the joy of what to means to feed one another.

November 27, 2019

Katie Tandy
courtesy of Sophie

ood has never been particularly erotic for me — joyous, comforting, revolting, maybe sensual in the case of a perfectly split-pearled raw oyster — but never sexy.

Maybe it’s the mastication — all that chewing feels a bit bovine — or maybe it’s that I always have too-big eyes and a too-small stomach, so eating is nearly always synonymous with light nausea, a too fullness, for me.

But this year, on the cusp of this season so tautly bound with feasting, I will say my senses, in response to food, feel distinctly — and newly — alight.

There is a creeping kind of synesthesia happening, a collapsing of colors and smells and tastes and touch with time and memory that is leaving me reeling in the grocery store. Inside restaurants.

In staring at the contents of my refrigerator.

In wandering through the beautiful bowels of the internet I discovered that there were many different kinds of synesthesia — in addition to the “most common” and studied, Grapheme-color synesthesia (every letter or numerical has a particular color — people also taste words.

In reading an interview with one synesthete whose brain collapses the boundaries between mouth and mind they said:

“Every sound I hear, especially word sounds, comes with an involuntary taste and texture experience attached. This is a real mouthfeel and not just a simple association. If I hear my dog bark, I experience the taste and texture of runny custard in my mouth. The word ‘like’ tastes of yoghurt, the name ‘Martin’ has the tastes and texture of a warm Bakewell tart. Individual voices have taste and texture, as does all music.

I experience a constant flow of flavors. It’s like a drip, drip, drip from an eyedropper on my tongue, one taste after another, varying in strength and intensity and each overlaying the previous one.”

They said that often there is a kind of onomatopoeia element to their lives, which is to say that food words — like cheese or potato — taste like cheese and potatoes. But of course, because life is nothing if not a relentless series of arguable anomalies, not all words taste like their physical counterpart.

“The food word ‘oyster’ has the very strong taste and texture of soft, thin chocolate.” And stranger still? Sometimes the word tastes vastly better than the real food. “It’s a constant source of disappointment.”

And then there’s ordinal linguistic personification (where folks perceive numbers, letters, days, or months, etc. as having inherently distinct personality traits and genders) and spatial sequence synesthesia where numbers, letters, months and dates are perceived as occupying points in space.

’N’ can be a sneaky letter, ‘S’ a source of loin-al tingle. Those with spatial sequence synesthesia can move towards December in their mind’s eye or actually move towards it in physical space.

These synesthetes often have incredible memories and an ability to recall events with such a heightened state of detail, that they liken it to time travel.

On my mother’s side, we all toiled under a fairly cruel, if impressive matriarchy.

There is no denying that Mary Barden, my grandmother, towered before our family, clad in velvet dresses and glinting rings, a smell of Nivea cream wafting in her wake.

I think for most, to say someone towered would be hyperbolic, but for ‘Bardie’, as we called her, it feels like an understatement. She was glamorous, petulant, sharp-tongued and disarmingly charming. Her effect on men was palpable, her wit enviable. She was not to be crossed, not to be bartered with and certainly not contradicted.

In a world that affords women so little — autonomy, visibility, money, respect, space — I have forgiven her as best I can for the brutality she exacted on her children. I have borne witness in my mind’s eye to the sublimation of her desires as she reared four children in the ’50s as a single mother in a wicked little town. To have been the leader she was — even if she was self-appointed — she had to be a bit vicious. Stronger, louder, more cunning. Resolved to see it through until the end.

This is all to say Bardie took holidays very seriously. She lorded over them like a disaffected queen. The machinations of shopping and preparations — of anxiety and a desperation to please — began weeks before the event.

And as a fledgling woman — flanking my grandmother, mother, and two aunts — I learned early on that the kitchen was our kingdom. Not in the classic, women belong in the kitchen trope (although of course that was also embedded in there) but as a point of pride. Of our undeniable ability to provide beautiful delicious food to the clan.

Everyone but my grandmother chained-smoked cigarettes — Marlboro 100s and Virginia Slims — and would spend the afternoon flicking ash, chopping and simmering and polishing and quaffing wine. I diligently whacked carrots into perfect half-inch rings in between swatting clouds of smoke from my eyes demanding that someone open a window. I piled smoked salmon onto tiny pumpernickel crackers and fanned them on a gleaming tray before running outside for a quick game of bocce in the waning light with the men.

I resented how obvious the gender roles were as I grew older, angrier, more conscious of power dynamics, but I also admired the women’s efficiency, their skill, their pride in an eons-old tradition of feeding family. The kitchen tugged back and forth on my gut strings, on my fledgling attempts to differentiate, to imagine what kind of woman I would be. If I would forgo the care-taking of cooking entirely.

Thanksgiving was the first holiday I was able to imbue with my own sense of being because at 30 years old I finally lived across the country in California, instead of an hour and a half train ride from Connecticut from Brooklyn, where at every holiday I’d arrive, roll up my goddamn sleeves and start cooking.

But with space, with time, with the actual reimaginings of this fraught holiday of feasting, I’ve relearned the joy of what to means to feed one another.

I hosted a big rambling friendsgiving feast last Sunday night and as I gazed around the room at the humbling bounty of what everyone had made, this makeshift meal of traditions — of old and new faces — I thought of the work at first. The slicing, the dicing, the sautéing, the simmering of sauces, the burnt tips of fingers and roofs of mouths in wrangling each dish.

I took two steps back as tendril after tendril of heat rose from plate after plate — my kitchen table brimming — and I thought back even further, to fields of rustling corn and spinach trembling in our fledgling autumn. I thought of the people harvesting those rolling hills of California — places like Watsonville and Gilroy — that I always spy from my car, the trees and bushes laden with orange and yellow fruit; the eerie beauty of horizonless earth in perfect striations, the click-click-click of industrial sprinklers. I thought of the farmers and the farmworkers — the strength of their bodies and perhaps their subjugation and struggles too.

I thought of the pigs and cows and chickens and ducks that sighed their lives into the sky — so many animal bodies feeding the human body — and I thought of the arms and legs that piled apple after apple, porkchop after porkchop, into truck after truck and the arms and legs that greeted them on the other side of wind and highway and piled them in every grocery store across Oakland and Berkeley. And there my friends’ bodies greeted them again.

I thought of all the meals I’ve ever cooked and consumed, and all the bodies that were sustained. I thought of Bardie’s own body — wrapped in velvet and soil and a wooden coffin — becoming grass, becoming deer-food.

I could taste the wind ripping petals from the stalks on her grave. I could smell the date I moved to California.

My tongue craves unctuous thick stews that sound like a fire-crackle. I want to curl my tongue around a thick slice of persimmon. I’m painstakingly rifling through stacks of chanterelle mushrooms and gingerly laying them in a tiny white paper sack — my mouth rushing with saliva, the piano of Duke Ellington — as I imagine them with toast and butter. I’m sniffing melons — rubbing their thick rough skins against my nose.

I’m thinking about the undeniable cyclicality that governs our lives. About how thin the boundaries are between all our senses, all our bodies. All this food.

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