December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Past perfect

By |2018-03-21T20:07:07+01:00March 17th, 2017|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Take what you need and leave the money here.

remember food, or I think I do. Tastes of raspberries in Wales, picked fresh that morning from a patch near our rental cottage, and a hand-written sign saying, “Take what you need and leave the money here.” A small cardboard box sat next to the fragrant containers of berries. The taste of a raspberry for me is a little mini-vacation to Wales.

I remember my first Gulf oyster in Texas — a shock, but then the little slippery puddle of the sea in a shell had me hooked for life.

As children, my brother and I were lured into eating odd vegetables because of a sage mother who often masked them (asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) with a rich yellow hollandaise or béarnaise. Smart cookie, my mamma.

But then there is the memory of travel food — my best friend and I after a long, no-food ferry ride eating skewers of something from a street markets in Piraeus. We were sure they were dog livers, but the incredible mustard one slathered on them made up for imagination. At that point in our travels we could have eaten groundhog livers.

And then there was the time — I, a young inexperienced bride on a honeymoon in Paris — that my then husband and I went to a tiny 2-star bistro where I ordered the Périgord truffe en brioche, whatever that was. A scowling chef peered at me from the doorway of his famous kitchen to see just what creature had deemed to call his creation “burned.” An embarrassment of riches, and a strong lesson learned.

Such naiveté. So full of oneself at that young age when words like coulis or feuillete had not yet been imprinted on my pea brain. Only on the coasts in big cities would one find gourmets in restaurant kitchens. But the taste of that “burned” fungus started my career as cook, teacher and food writer. Thank you, scowling chef!

A memory of Anadama bread, hot from the oven, with butter and sugar on it in my nonna‘s kitchen took me into the realm of bread baking, but alas, in my haste one day to get 30 small loaves to a food fair, I by accident kneaded my ring (lying on the bread board) into one of the loaves. Never to be seen again.

Hey, these things happen when you’re learning.

Tastes are our madeleines, like Proust’s, that when savored and chewed bring back chains of memories from a lovely event or a fraught evening. Such as the dinner party at which my Canard Montmorency suddenly took wing from its platter — all this in a manner of speaking — and flew into the plate glass window of our dining room, leaving eight hungry guests agape and my wounded white crepe evening dress spattered like blood with marinated dark cherries. As I said, these things happen.

But it is food from the sea that takes me back to Rosarito beach in Baja, where small grills were set up in the streets to cook fresh, split lobsters that you dipped in lemon and butter and ate with handmade tortillas. I can still taste the charred edges of the lobster tail, but my memory of that time with my future husband is oh, so sweet.

Tastes are the demarcations of periods in one’s life, of poignant moments in friendships, or the sudden realization that we do not live forever.

When my dear friend was dying from a brain tumor but thank heaven had reached a stage at which she knew nothing and had no pain, we around her eased our own pain by putting away vast quantities of scotch on the evenings we gathered and visited. And there were many. She and I had cooked together and loved Tex-Mex. We’d eaten at so many dinners and been out to so many restaurants they could not be counted. And then, there were no more. Scotch always reminds me of Sandy and all of us who were with her daily until.

Remember tastes. They will be the diary, the journal, the memoir of all the moments, joyful or not, that you fully lived.

If only tastes could bring back those who shared them with us.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.