In February (March some years), bundles of asparagus in fake-turf-lined bins at Safeway invaded my mother’s vegetable consciousness. Few things had the power to pull Barb from her freezer or canned food pantry, with its precise rows of Mexi-corn and LeSeur petits pois. But asparagus had something mesmerizing—the irresistible force of tradition, memories of spring lust, whatever. And at exactly the time when the subtle shift from a California winter to a California spring registers as an inner urge, a condition unaffected by weather alone.
The first Delta asparagus—one of the few foods whose lofty price Barb never questioned—left no doubt about what season it was. Peeled, boiled stalks steaming on the plate, next to a lump of Best Foods straight from the jar. For luck, my brother and I would make a wish before chomping the first spear, which bobbed lazily when you picked it up. And while I’m pretty sure first asparagus always tastes sweet, I swear a measure of sucrose accrued in the cellular structure of those stalks from anticipation, in some complex alchemy of want. —John Birdsall
On Valentine’s Day my father cooked. Just for my mother, that is, and, since he couldn’t technically cook (unless you count steaks and burgers) he heated up: frozen Australian lobster tails, twice-baked potatoes, creamed spinach. He was a Safeway clerk and had dream access to the freezer aisle. I imagine him days before February 14, combing the luxury end of the freezer bin, weighing the likely effects of frozen chateaubriand or lobster Newburgh. Hopeful that the sheer physical beauty of factory-extruded potato, cheese, and guar gum could work a kind of magic on my mother’s heart.
On the big day I set the table, and helped with the heating up. In the neon orange glow of the electric broiler the lobsters swelled, white flesh miraculously puffing up through slits in their arched shells. Stuffed potatoes browned at the edges, shrinking away from the rolled-foil rims. Orange cheese melted, while flecks of paprika bled tiny vermilion stars into the delicious-looking surface.
As I set out cupcakes spackled with pink icing, stuck with plastic charms (a gold-edged rose, cupid with a blurry face) painted, I imagined, by hairnetted Chinese women who couldn’t possibly know about Valentine’s Day. I thought that love must be something complicated and baroque. Gilded with yellow cheese.
I once asked food writer Laxmi Hiremath (author of The Dance of Spices) what Valentine’s Day was like in southwest India, where she grew up. Valentine’s? It’s become a fever in only the last ten years or so—she noticed it on a trip to India one February, when university flower beds had been picked clean by students intent on giving filched blossoms to their squeezes. But it’s in India’s elaborate wedding preparations where love turns all baroque, Hiremath said. Especially through food.
Food is a vector of touching, a surreptitious way for couples to begin to explore each other’s bodies. With fingers dipped in turmeric paste, fiances paint each other’s faces, literally gilding one another with fragrance. Or plunge their hands into a huge mound of raw rice or lentils, feeling for a concealed ring—a way to touch your betrothed’s hands, semi-concealed from family’s unending gaze.
Husbands give their wives gifts in February, India’s romance month even before the shiny new Valentine’s import. Wives score jewelry and sarees; in return, they make elaborate sweets for their husbands: thin pancakes stuffed with pastes of lentils and jaggery laced with cardamom and nutmeg, and delicate vermicelli puddings.
Hiremath’s parents had an arranged marriage, best guarantee for a long, loving relationship. Or so she swears. “As couples grow older, they grow very close,” she said. Maybe. Certainly my seventysomething parents—whose marriage in the 1950s was arranged, I suppose, by a little bit of lust and a whole lot of family pressure—are inseparable, caught up in a shared life of bickering and tenderness.
Me, I like the idea of Hiremath’s India. In February, the month when Lord Shiva’s wife did penance to win his affections, and Indian classical music is full of melodies that mimic the trickling of honey, and the sounds of cuckoos feeding on mango shoots, women are cooking intricate recipes to win their husbands’ affections, gradually. Over time.
Call love a work in progress, on Valentine’s and most other days. Who knows? Maybe Stouffer’s creamed spinach—or the coffee I’ve made for my own husband nearly every day for the past 17 years—really does have transformative powers on the heart. —John Birdsall
Ever notice how hard it is to taste something, really taste it? If you don’t get it on the first or second bite, well — it’s like trying to catch up to a paper napkin on a windy sidewalk. Impossible.
Take coffee, the first thing you taste every day. There’s only a brief moment when you can actually taste it, taste it with focused attention, I mean. After the Krups machine has let out its final wheeze, and the last spurt of water has settled onto the black slurry of grounds. After that, when the coffee’s in your mug, and you’re alone in the kitchen, there’s a second when you get the aroma: malty, caramel-sweet, with a whiff of tar from the roaster.
In that first sip the taste is as clear as the tinkling of wind chimes: bark-like richness, near-metallic acidity, bitterness as reviving as the smell of morning out the front door. With your nose in the mug, hands wrapped around it for warmth, you get it.
But by the third sip it’s gone. You’re still drinking hot liquid, but the taste is now muddy. Maybe you’re distracted by thoughts of checking on your husband, that he hasn’t fallen back asleep to the hum of NPR on snooze. Or discovering that the cat’s been sick on the carpet. Maybe you’ve started to look at the paper. You’re still sipping from the mug, but the coffee’s taste is now as vague as your reflection in a fogged mirror. It’s just bitter.
Pour yourself a fresh cup but it’s hopeless: No amount of concentration can help you squeegee away the desensitizing fog. Any nuance, all subtlety — they’re just gone.
That phenomenon — the way the sense of taste becomes numb after a brief moment of attention — that phenomenon is something that people who write about wine know only too well. “During the first moments of tasting a wine, you will form distinct impressions about its taste and bouquet,” observes food writer Richard Olney. “But these impressions are bound to be transitory, and even a wine expert may find it difficult to remember them for long.” Thus the usefulness of tasting logs, notebooks where you can jot down associations after the first or second sips from your glass, in comments as spontaneous and unfiltered as the observations of a Zen roshi. Supple. Nutty. Moldy. Flabby
Harold McGee, who writes about the science of food, hints at the intricate choreography of sensations that even a tiny sip of something sets off. Taste buds clock salts, sugars, acids, savory amino acids and bitter alkaloids, but it’s the sense of smell that allows for subtlety. “Nearly all food aromas are composites of many different molecules,” McGee writes. “In the case of vegetables, herbs and spices, the number may be a dozen or two, while fruits typically emit several hundred volatile molecules. Usually just a handful create the dominant element of an aroma, while the others supply background, supporting, enriching notes.”
Reading McGee, you get the feeling that the act of tasting, of sorting through those volatile molecules, requires so much attention, such an extraordinary effort of focus, that it’s impossible to sustain it after an initial spurt of energy. Your senses simply can’t maintain the effort.
That inevitable fading of focused attention has its own poignancy. It was the elusiveness of taste that sparked a literary and esthetic revolution last century. Marcel Proust used taste as a turnstile into his six-novel epic of memory exploration, Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator slurps bit of cake crumbled into a spoonful of herb tea. The first taste conjures the house he knew as a child springing up about him, and sparks over 2,000 pages of reflection. The late cookbook author James Beard used Proust’s famous moment with cake and tea as inspiration for his own 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices. “When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt,” Beard wrote, “it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes.”
Well, Beard cast a huge shadow—literally.
But that so-called Proustian moment: it’s the feeling you get standing in Safeway, when “Billy Jean” kicks on over the PA. Suddenly you’re no longer squinting to read the cost-per-ounce of Special K Red Berries. Suddenly you’re in the dark, on the bench seat of a Chevy Nova, lost in the aroma of Herbal Essence shampoo in the hair of a girl you used to date. When you used to date girls.
Pure magic, but fragile. “I drink a second mouthful,” Proust writes, “in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic.” Taste is a balloon you can’t tie closed: The more you handle it the quicker it collapses. But in the collapsing, there’s the possibility of poetry.
Imagine that, in the murky light just past dawn, when the newspaper guy’s battered car is stop-starting down the street, and there’s the thwack of newspapers on front steps. When the Krups machine is pulsing its trickle of coffee into the carafe, and the cat is moving sinuously against your calf, your senses are all converging into something with more or less the charge of poetry.
Drink it in — you won’t be able to make it last. —John Birdsall