Cristina is my oldest friend, I met her when I was five and we were living in Virginia and her family had just moved back to the States after living in Spain. We’ve been best friends ever since. She’s an incredibly supportive wife, a dedicated mother, and one of the most encouraging women I have ever known. And even though I’ve known her all these years I still live hearing new stories of hers like this one of taste buds and memories we didn’t know we have.
Our taste buds have memories of their own. Its commonly acknowledged that smells, tastes, textures have a powerful connection to our recollections. One whiff of Windex and I am transported back to my high school job, sanitizing every exhibit at the local science museum with window cleaner. I cannot hear the light tapping of popcorn without thinking of my dad at the stove with the popper, calling everyone one to get their drinks ready before a movie.
There are some things, however, that my taste buds remember and I simply don’t. I grew up my whole life eating lentil stew. It was a cheap, tasty dish that my mom learned to cook when our family lived in Spain. When we moved back to the States when I was four, my mom continued to make lentil stew on a regular basis. I knew exactly how it tasted, (earthy with a hint of curry), looked (earthy with bright pops of orange carrot), and smelled (earthy with a subtle wafts of tomato, garlic and curry). Just looking at lentils at the grocery store takes me back to dark winter nights around the kitchen table with a brothy stew steaming up the window, warm bread and salad on the table. I don’t remember ever thinking anything was missing from this feast.
When I was 16 my family took a trip back to Spain. It was the first time my brother and I had been back since we moved. We arrived the day after Christmas jet lagged and bleary eyed so our hosts threw us a party. For me it was a sudden plunge back into all things Spanish. Olives, tortillas, wine and more wine. Overwhelmed and a little discouraged about my meager language abilities I sat down in front of a plate of cold cuts. I picked out a brick red slice of what I knew to be Spanish chorizo. The minute I touched the chorizo to my mouth I had one thought and one thought only. I grabbed my mom’s shoulder, wide eyed and said “THIS! This is what is supposed to go into lentil stew!” My mom smiled.
Ever since we had moved to the States my mom had been making lentil stew with Italian sausage. Unless you live in a larger metropolitan area its very, very difficult to find Spanish Chorizo in the supermarket. While there are forms of spicy or “fresh” chorizo is parts of Spain, the most common type is a deep red cured pork and fat sausage made with pimentón (a special smoked paprika) and garlic. Tangy, sweet with hints of garlic, it has a distinct flavor. There is no substitute. At 16 I did not know this. For the past 12 years I had been eating Lentil stew without Chorizo and hadn’t given it a second thought. I have no memory of eating Lentil Stew in Spain when I was three. No images of my childhood pop up in my mind when I see a slice of chorizo cantimpalo. But on that 2nd day of Christmas in 2003 my mouth remembered something I did not and it was just the beginning. On this trip I discovered why kids yogurts had always left me feeling disappointed. I had been privileged for the first 4 years of my life to have delectable, creamy, rich “Petit Suisse.” The raw smell of the Spanish meat market made me feel strangely comforted. Things that looked unfamiliar to me tasted and smelled like home, a home I couldn’t remember and hadn’t known that I missed.
I wonder now, as a parent of a 6 and 4 year old, what flavors my kids already have ingrained in their tongue memories. If we picked up today and moved to the other side of the world, what foods would they miss? What would they not miss, until 12 or more years later when they tasted it again and thought “This tastes like home,”?