For many years, my stock in trade has been researching recipes people remember with fondness, finding out how our predecessors made that thing taste so good, trying to recapture flavors and textures that are now only memories.
How DID they make it taste so good? I’m sorry. You’re not going to like hearing this, but it’s true: They put fat, salt and sugar. It might require a particular fat, a certain form of sugar, less or more salt, but that is generally the difference once you’ve figured out the dish as a whole.
Some years ago, an email recipe friend asked how to make Japanese-style curry. Living on the Mainland, desparate for Island flavors, he wanted to know how to clone Vermont brand curry mixtures. (And why the heck is it called Vermont???? It’s supposed to be Japanese.).
Well, the answer to how they do it is — as with most other shortcut, open-the-package products — what I call sludge. But in a good way. Sludge is a viscous, creamy-fatty-salty thing that happens in commercial products as a result of 10,000 different forms of corn sugar and guar gum and lard and tallow and other mysterious ingredients.
I was thinking about this the other day. I can make a damned fine curry — quick, easy, with a familiar richness. But it won’t have quite the texture or mouth-feel of Vermont. And, you know what? I am done. I am not going to anymore think I can precisely replicate commercial recipes. I can get close. But I can’t make sludge. Don’t want to. Rather buy it. Or, when I’m thinking about my health, skip it.
There are several categories of recipes that food researchers get asked about again and again:
Recipes we’re never gonna get because they are actually unique and the chefs are guarding them; planning to sell them eventually and send the grandkids to college, I guess.
Recipes for commercial products that cannot be replicated in a home kitchen. Those “kopykat” Web sites are pretty much dreck. Just go buy it.
Recipes for dishes we recall fondly and with longing from the past, probably something Grandma or Mommy or Auntie or Grandpa or Uncle made, but also recipes from such restaurants as the old downtown Woolworth’s in Honolulu or your school’s lunch program or some little restaurant where you used to go to lunch.
Face it: These cannot be replicated in the absence of the original cook. And even if you can find the original cook — and I have done so on occasion — there’s some mysterious alchemy, something about the pots they used, the products they used, the instinctive techniques they employed that you will never be able to recapture.
But, you know, when we begin to search out a recipe, when we ask a researcher, a cookbook writer, a family member to give us that recipe, what are we asking? Is it the dish we want or the circumstances of the time in which we ate the dish — the age we were, the people who were with us, the world the way it was then?
Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward: There are recipes for things for which the ingredients are readily available, the techniques straightforward. Like that Pumpkin Crunch recipe that swept the state a decade or two ago. Everybody knows how to make it now. No problem.
But the recipes of memory?
These are not so easily replaced. How did my grandmother make a tomato-based beef stew that was never too tomatoey? I watched her do it half a hundred times, helped her process the solid-pack tomatoes, learned at her elbow how to brown and season the beef. And I can’t make that stew. I make a good beef stew, but it’s not Grandma’s stew. I can’t make her coconut cake, her coconut pie..and even if she hadn’t destroyed her hand-written recipe book without our knowledge when she got Alzheimer’s, I bet I STILL couldn’t make those dishes just the way she did.
There was a lady who ran a takeout right across from The Advertiser when I worked there. She made the best mac salad I ever ate. It looked simple and she swore to me it was: macaroni, mayo, salt, pepper. But there was something….
Years ago, when I worked in Everett, Wash., there was a tavern a block away from the office that made this sandwich. It was called the Beefeater. It was a three-decker sandwich, like a club, but with shaved beef, even more thinly shaved onions and some kind of sour cream-based spread, on white bread. If I had a dime for every one of those I ate I could probably buy a bottle of Dom Perignon with which to toast that long-lost cook.
But I’ll never have that sandwich again. Or my grandmothers’ stew or cake or pie. Or the mac salad. I have to cherish those memories and move on. Realize that a food memory is not just a template. It’s an amalgam of time and place and feeling and relationship and everything that was going on in your life. I remember how I used to yearn for the Maui County Fair each year, so I could have cotton candy. Then I grew up and moved away. Didn’t go to the fair for years. Went back, got cotton candy and …. oooooh, it was nasty. The cotton candy hadn’t changed. I had. I wasn’t at the fair anymore with a HUMONGOUS $10 to spend, my nanny-cousin Dorothy at my side and the whole day to do whatever we wanted. I was a grownup. With a grownup palate. And cotton candy just wasn’t rockin’ my world anymore.
And I have to accept that. Relish the memories. Relish the present (in which, for example, I enjoy baked cheesecake, which was repellent to me as a child). When I was a child, I ate as a child but now I am grown, I have put away (most) childish things. And I know, after 30-something years in the business, that that dish you’re chasing, the one you think I can find for you, the one you can JUST taste on the tip of your tongue, is probably gone. Maybe not. If it’s something simple and basic and the ingredients are still available and somebody thought to write it down and it’s in a cookbook or a recipe file or on the Internet somewhere, I can get it for you. And I’ll knock myself out trying.
But just as I won’t ever be 10 and at the Maui County Fair and burying my face in a cloud of spun sugar anymore, you probably won’t find that recipe, even if you find it. That is, the recipe alone isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s Grandma. It’s the County Fair. It’s the uncles in the carport talking story and whackin’ the poke. It’s being back in school and feeling safe and seeing life as full of possibilities.
I can make Spanish rice or hekka or prune cake with 7-Minute Icing. But I can’t take you back there to where you first ate those things. Only you can. In your memory. The food is optional.