Tantalizing Tastes and the Places They Take Us

It was before dark, just after the sun had gone down. The October cold was already closing in for the night - perfect for my purpose. It would chill the apples on the trees but not freeze them. I walked into a field near my home, toward a secluded tree I knew well, one laden with apples I had left untouched until everything was just right.

I picked one and gravely sank my teeth into it, with all the ceremony due an act so long awaited. It had an indescribable tang, a piquant assault on the palate that I later learned would ring down the decades of my taste memory.

Writers claim the sense of smell is underrated as an evocative agent. They say one whiff of a long-forgotten odor can suddenly flood the memory with old associations. So can tastes.

Like those apples in the twilight long ago, certain flavors can link then and now, unifying your life experience in a way the logical mind may have trouble doing. I'm not talking about a gourmet's journal of culinary high points, but a sensory guide to the past marked by sometimes crude and unremarkable bits of food that point beyond themselves. The tangy apple tasted great and also mirrored adolescent zest and the sometimes stinging arrival of new ideas and new realities.

I used to make equal ceremony of eating tomatoes in the family garden. That too had to be done in solitude, but this time in summer heat, after waiting weeks for a certain vine to bring a certain ideally shaped tomato to fruition. The tomato's taste was as meaningful as the apple's, but totally different. It was warm and full of allusions, a metaphor for musings about the unknown future.

A home garden is the only setting where tomatoes can deliver such Proustian flashbacks. You can hardly taste the tomatoes offered in most supermarkets. They are stand-ins for the real thing. People eat them out of habit, a conditioned reflex from a time when the fruits were exquisitely rich and squirted juice on your shirt.

In an age when form sometimes suffices in place of substance, you begin to believe you don't need the real thing. That's why a quick taste can often make memories leap up. You're remembering something real. A bite of salmon the other day made me hear the long-ago voice of a guide in Maine.

We were on a river and had just caught a fish. He paddled our canoe to the bank, built a fire, filleted the fish, and fried it. I told him about a friend who always brought meat with him on camping trips because he didn't like fish in any form. Looking down at the fillets sizzling over the fire, the guide said, "A man who doesn't like that, doesn't like himself." As we savored the meal in fulfilled silence, I understood.

Some hot cereal today hints - just hints - at the grits I had one morning long ago in New Orleans. Hot and overbuttered, they were a way of savoring the locale itself. I read a world of jazz and hospitality into the white granules piled generously on my plate. I surveyed many sights around town and heard a lot that day, but what pulled it all together - and what lingers - was that stereotypical breakfast.

Barnyard memories return when milk is served at a certain temperature. I am a kid standing expectantly by a cow stanchion while Mr. Casey, busy milking, says, "Open up!" and aims a warm jet at my expectant mouth.

I save the best and most surprising taste for last, and only when I'm very hungry and have time only to grab a quick bite does it all come back to me. The piece de resistance was a small, stale half loaf of bread. A boyhood friend and I had underestimated how long it would take to row to shore from the middle of a lake. We had also underestimated our appetites. We reached the shore at night, cold and famished. Did we have anything in our makeshift camp to eat? We didn't think so - but wait! Here was a hunk of bread, who knows how old? And who cared?

It tasted like, well, like very stale bread. It was also the most delicious meal I had ever eaten. And as we gobbled it, telling ourselves it was good, I understood: In a tangy apple, a succulent tomato, or even a bit of old bread, eaten at the right time, lurks the taste of life, reminding one that life is there to be savored. Like Emily in Thorton Wilder's drama "Our Town," those tastes are saying, "Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize."

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