Thursday, January 11, 2007

On food and memory.

There is a scene in an Agatha Christie novel (The Mirror Crack'd) where the inspector tells Miss Marple of how he connects jam-roll pudding with his mother's death, how he was eating it in the nursery when he heard that there had been an accident and she had been killed, and how even years later seeing a plate of the pudding caused a wave of misery and despair to wash over him. I don't really know what jam-roll pudding is, but I have always imagined as being like a jam-roll cake, a thin sheet of spongecake spread with jam and rolled up, revealing itself as golden cake spiraled with a thin line of red jam. I have never had it with jam, but rather filled with cream or buttercream, and when I eat it now I see in my mind's eye the one time my mother made it, I remember watching her spread the mocha buttercream frosting across the thin sheet of génoise, carefully rolling it into a fat log, slicing it when the guests gathered for dessert.

More than anything else it is food that is linked to memory for me, food and literature. I can remember who I was and where I was when I tasted something, read something, which either changed my life or was part of a time in my life when everything was changing. I read The Master and Margarita by flashlight under the trees that marched up and down the slopes of a mountain, I read Bukowski in a booth by the window of my favorite pub. I first ate pâté perched on the counter of the narrow galley kitchen in my grandfather's Manhattan apartment. And when I sit in front of a bowl of chicken noodle soup I remember the confusion and strain and fear of those months when my father was ill, now ten years ago last November (he has been in remission since then). Not the chicken noodle soup of cafeterias and diners, crowded with short flat noodles and carrots and onion and celery and chunks of chicken, but my mother's chicken soup, made from leftover roast chicken or whole Cornish game hens. (Much later I would recreate this myself, with poussins and a handful of scallions and bundles of noodles from the tiny Chinese grocery store, the only one in our college town).

Everything happened very quickly. (Life changes in an instant, writes Joan Didion). This much I remember: My father was on a business trip on the East coast, DC or Maryland, when he felt a little funny. X-rays at a local hospital (which happend to be Johns Hopkins, as I recall) revealed something in his chest, a mass. Further tests back in Seattle revealed a tumor wrapped around his thymus gland (I think of this every time I devour a plate of sweetbreads). Within a week he was undergoing surgery at the University of Washington medical center, the operation delayed a day because of Veteran's day. It was a Tuesday when they sawed open the sternal plate to remove the tumor; much later I would be told that it had been the size of a softball. I remember visiting him after school, and how shocking it was to see my father, of all people, so pale and still in his hospital bed. I remember holding his hand and trying not to cry. And I remember the long convalescence at home, how my mother made pots and pots of chicken soup with noodles and carried bowls of noodle soup upstairs.

Now when I make a bowl of chicken noodle soup with the same flat, wide noodles that my mother used all those years ago, I think of that time, of how scared I was, of the scar on my father's chest that is still visible even now, of the black marks just below the base of his throat that were used to guide the radiation treatment that followed his recovery from the surgery. And I think of Inspector Dermot Craddock's words from The Mirror Crack'd, of how he felt every time he looked at a plate of jam-roll pudding. I forget things all the time, phone numbers and small tasks I was supposed to do days ago, but this I cannot forget.


lauritajuanitasanchez said...

(sorry, I mis-spelled your name in my last comment).

I'll never be able to eat a Dole Fruit and Juice bar. My dad ate those all the time while he was dying of cancer. I remember wiping up red dots of his vomit after he died and crying, feeling guilty that I was cleaning up evidence of his existence.

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

And tomato soup. Remember how he ate that, too? I always think of him when I see tomato soup. Good post.