The connection between memory and food is something I’ve been pondering this week. In a world where (some) of us can eat anything we desire (within reason) why do we choose to consume what we do?
Leading up to this was a story I filed last week at The Atlantic, about dining with Wu’er Kaixi in Taiwan. He hasn’t returned to China in twenty years, and for him food functions as a sort of transporter. He has a very analytical approach to eating, which helps this process along.
But it’s more complicated than that. My wife’s family is from Taiwan, and though I was alone there, I was eating for Candice. I tasted many of the things she ate as a child, trying to decode the history of her own food preferences. I thought about the great migration of Mainlanders in ’49, and how their own food has been altered by the climate, the culture, and the relative abundance of Taiwan. What did they hold on to, what did they change, and why?
Then I read this story about an American boy, who was adopted from China when he was very young. His adoption mother tried to help him find his real family, but her search was futile. So they contacted an expert, who asked the boy about his food memories as a child, which gave them their first lead:
“Based on Jiacheng's (Christian's) memories we did some analysis, like his eating habits," Zhang said. "He likes vinegar, which should be in northern China and close to Shanxi. He also likes garlic ... and from his memory his family grew potato and corn, which gave us a hint of the region he used to live."
All this was going through my head last night as I was cooking pork and sauerkraut. Earlier in the week (here’s where the story takes a stranger turn) my good friend Tony, a successful entrepreneur who has embarked on a ’year of learning’, got a degree in hypnotherapy. And over the course of two days he (very mildly) hypnotized me – a process that I regarded with a great deal of skepticism. And during the sessions I was able to access a great deal of childhood memory – with exacting clarity – that is now within easy reach.
I am not talking about complete memories succinct experiences so much as sensations – the way the tight coils of wool carpet felt under my feet in the old basement, the various smells in each room in the home I grew up in (potpourri, carpet glue, woodsmoke), the paintings on the wall in full, the quality of light that streamed through the kitchen windows, and the feel of the deeply furrowed bark on the old black walnut trees outside. It was all there.
Which leaves me back at the pork and sauerkraut – admittedly a very strange thing to eat in Bangkok August. As I browned pieces of pork shoulder rubbed in pepper and salt, and sliced onions and garlic into rustic chunks, I thought about how this dish took over my brain on a Sunday stroll though the supermarket. And it hit me: I’m coming up on my second fall, a time when the weather finally turns cold, and you can eat the stews and roasts I grew up on. For fleeting seconds these days I miss winter, as this will be my second year without that season. Lately, the feeling has grown stronger, as the heat drags on without relent. And in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, nothing says winter like pork and sauerkraut.
I braised the meat for 3 hours in a pork stock with onions, garlic, thyme and rosemary, and then whipped that through the blender with a little flour to make a rich, flavorful gravy. I poured the sauerkraut over the pork, let it braise for another 45 minutes or so, as I boiled potatoes and mashed them by hand with some sour cream and butter. Candice made a delicious granny smith applesauce.
And as we finally ate our Sunday night meal a vicious thunderstorm blew through, bending our mango tree sideways so its narrow leaves brushed at the windows. Lighting flashed, and water thundered down. For a few minutes, it felt very inhospitable out there – which, along with a slab of tender pork, mashed potatoes and homemade applesauce was as close to the winter in my mind as I’m likely to get.