The foods we never forget
The recently released Disney animated hit, "Ratatouille," features a mean restaurant critic named Anton Ego, also called "The Grim Eater." Mr. Ego, as scrawny as an old stick, comes to a restaurant named for the late, great chef Auguste Gusteau, whose kitchen has secretly been taken over by a gourmet rat named Remy and his rodent entourage.
Ego, aware of the restaurant's growing reputation as a gourmet heaven, is ready to be unimpressed. And then he tastes the restaurant's special dish of the evening, ratatouille. At first bite, Ego is a changed man. He almost melts into his chair, a goofy grin on his lantern-jawed face.
Before you scurry (OK, bad choice of word) for the nearest exit because of the idea of rats in the kitchen (with aprons yet), it's important to recognize why Ego changes his ways. The restaurant's ratatouille, an elegant presentation of an old French peasant dish made of vegetables and herbs, reminds the nasty villain of his childhood when, as a chubby sweetie- pie of a boy, he used to come home to the aroma of his mother's homespun version of that same dish.
I saw this film with my 5-year-old grandson, and on the way home he asked, "Grammy, why did the bad guy change into such a good guy when he ate that food?"
"Good question," I answered. But how to reply? Then I remembered my mother's corn soup.
The soup was a thick chowder made with canned creamed corn, milk, the unpeeled root end of an onion, and a hearty dose of pepper.
Hardly gourmet fare, but it was not the soup that I recall so much as the anticipation as I neared my house. The chowder was always an autumn dish, although I don't know exactly why. So I associate the smell of the onion and pepper with coming home from school, walking through dried leaves.
The soup was tongue-bruisingly hot and tasted as if it had come from the kitchens of the queens of England. If you'd feed it to me today, there's no doubt that any frown on my face would straighten out and I'd hear the sound of autumn leaves crunching, crunching. Even Anton Ego might have scowled a little less.
And then I knew, through that kitchen full of rodent chefs and Mr. Ego's rapturous response, that Marcel Proust was right when he wrote that famous passage in "Remembrance of Things Past": "And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden...."
If a bite of a little cake can do all that for Proust, it surely must work for the rest of us. So I asked around about food memories.
My friend Susan responded immediately that she remembers the "sweet and vanilla-y" smell of floating island, which her mother made for her when she wasn't feeling well.
She added that as she was making split pea soup recently, the aroma somehow reminded her of Christmas Eve when she was little and the house filled with "the smell of spices and anticipation."
My friend Sol said that he recalls the apple cake that his mother baked on Fridays because that was the day that he and his brother were allowed to bring home storybooks from school. "We would polish off that warm cake and read."
My cousin Debbie is old enough to remember when kids walked home from school for lunch. She remembers doing that and watching "Jeopardy!" on television with a cup of (you guessed it) canned tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.
My friend Colette said that for her, it was the toast: "At 8 years old, I loved days on which I could go home, change out of my school uniform, and eat two pieces of white toast covered in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Life was perfect for that hour."
As my grandson and I drove home after seeing "Ratatouille," I asked him what food he thinks he'll remember when he grows up. I wondered how he was going to answer. He doesn't come home from preschool for lunch, and his dinners are often picked up from a restaurant by his two very busy working parents.
But he thought for a moment, and then I saw his face light up. "Ice cream!" he shouted. "It means my birthday party's coming up.
"I hope they still make strawberry when I'm big," he added.
I assured him that they will, while I allowed myself the vision of a grown-up man polishing off a dish of strawberry ice cream, licking the spoon – and remembering.