Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Food Memories

Mardel wrote about Food Memory just when I have been thinking a lot about it.

I have been very frazzled of late and picked up a brainless mystery, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, which takes place around 1966, at the height of the cold war.  When the story invoked a sinister axis of communist influence, which includes Cuba and China, all I could think was, "Yum."  I recalled the first time I had Cuban Chinese food (lower east side, NYC) and the stir fried veggies with curry sauce.  It had lots and lots of onions and bell peppers, smothered in curry.  I can almost smell it, even 20 years later.

A friend had gone to grad school in Minnesota and married a Minnesota Swede.  We overlapped in Colorado during his residency.  The first time I met her, my friend and I started to reminisce about Berkeley restaurants and particular dishes.  At one point, he mentioned a burger joint and then we both paused to savor the taste and smell, 6 years after we had enjoyed the burgers.

She thought we were just plain weird.  Food is fuel.  End of story.  She said that he was the first person that she had ever met that would talk about a meal he had years ago.  I was not the first friend of his that she had met that talked about food.  She now thinks it is a California thing.

Then she met Bad Dad.  Bad Dad will obsess about food.  At the restaurant, he will ask the waiter what spices they used and then go home to try to reproduce it.  He will do it again and again until he is satisfied.  he does this with music, too.  He'll pick at the keys on the piano, trying to replicate a melody he heard.  I am trying to channel his obsessiveness into cleaning the house.  No luck so far.

The most poignant story about food memory isn't even my story.  A guy in the same group theory and abstract algebra class came up to talk to me after class.  Upper division math classes are predominantly male.  The guys pass in a blur, but they all learn my name pretty quickly.  (This has nothing to do with me or them, it's just the demographics.)

Anyway, he said that we lived on the same floor; could we do our homework together?  Well, he turned out to be a nice guy.  He wrote poetry.  He read novels in French.  He read philosophy and wondered where he would find the time to learn Greek so he could read them in their original Greek.  He edited the Vietnamese language literary magazine on campus.  He had a lovely girlfriend that he went home to visit every weekend.  He needed to work very hard and smart during the week so that he could continue to do all that.  Finding homework partners helped.

Homework evolved into friendship.  We walked home from class together.  I learned that his dad had been a high school teacher.  After the fall of Saigon, books were supposed to be turned in to be burned.  His dad buried books of western history and philosophy under the floorboards.  At night, after a day of hard labor or communist-sanctioned school (father and son, respectively) they brought the books out and his dad home-schooled him.

My friend introduced me to the chocolate croissants at the French bakery on the corner of Euclid and Hearst, by the north gate of the Berkeley campus.  He couldn't do math homework without it.  I thought it was odd, because money was so tight for both of us and chocolate croissants are not cheap.  But, he told me about going into the city with his dad before the war, and how they would always stop at a French bakery for a treat.

Then Saigon fell and there were no more French bakeries.  His dad lost his job and was sent for re-education.  No more money.  No news of dad.  (I was surprised his dad wasn't shot for keeping the books, but their cache was never discovered.)

Sometimes, kids were sent to work in the rice paddies in lieu of class.  Everyone was sent when labor was needed.  He talked about the leeches that would cling to his skin.  What did he do?  What could he do?  He picked them off and continued to work.  The soldiers directing the work had guns.  He added that some people ate leeches.  Protein was in short supply then.

The story has a happy ending.  The family was reunited in a refugee camp in Thailand and then moved to California.  Last I heard of my friend, we were heading off to different grad schools to study Physics.

Almost a decade later,  Bad Dad and I bicycled through the south of France and stopped by a Roman ruin.  I was much more tired than he was.  While he explored further, I followed my nose to a bakery where I discovered the most exquisite pain au chocolat of my life.  Every time I eat one, I think about my friend, Ngan, and that sunny day in Provence with Bad Dad.


  1. What lovely food memories. I am realizing that I have quite a few food memories, and I actually do remember actual tastes, just not the particular tastes that prompted that reminiscence. I like Bad Dad's dogged attempts to reproduce a taste. I will certainly do the same thing when I am cooking or trying to master something, create it again and again, almost obsessively until I get the taste I want.

  2. I love chocolate croissants too. Even though we were broke, my boyfriend(now husband) and I used to buy them every Sunday in Berkeley, to eat while we read the paper. He does the same routine as bad Dad when trying to recreat recipes. I can't channel his obsessiveness into housework eityer, Must be a testosterone-thing- they just can't even SEE dust

  3. Yum, chocolate croissants, studying for college in coffee shops. Trying to recreate recipes--putting chocolate chips in pillsbury croissant dough doesn't work. :) Thanks for the thoughts.

  4. The Wilson Park farmer's market has a vendor of French pastries who does a great job with croissants of many kinds including pain au chocolat

  5. Brent, good thing you know how to correctly spell pain au chocolat. I will have to correct the post.

    Kathleen, did you ever eat Sunday brunch on the rooftop deck at Chester's Cafe? It is in the same complex as Peet's. Sunday NYT, brunch, a sun hat. A good ritual.

  6. Yes we have had Sunday brunch there - it was my first exposure to the NYT, being a California girl. Now we recreate this at home in Northern VA. Trader Joe's chocolate croissants. (They aren't bad! Cheaper than a flight to Berkeley)

  7. what a wonderful story!

  8. What a lovely post!


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