I’m struggling to find the motivation to write about a Serious Topic today, so I will refer instead to one of my favorite prompts from an undergraduate creative writing course. We were asked to consider a passage by author and gourmand M.F.K. Fisher in which she describes her sublime and barely articulable pleasure in drying out and eating the sections of a tangerine. Her prose is a delicate, succulent morsel. As Fisher knows, none of us can possibly replicate her experience in savoring this particular preparation. She hints, however, that perhaps we can access this transcendence indirectly by reflecting on our own ‘secret eatings’? The professor’s challenge to the student, of course, is fairly transparent: determine one’s own ‘secret eating’ and find a way to give the reader a taste.
As an erstwhile Fat Kid who has evolved into more of a refined ‘foodie,’ I have many candidates. I realize it is a bit of a cliché to speak of dishes, flavors, and aromas that take one back to childhood. But with the taste of mint chocolate chip ice cream (the artificial green kind, of course; and ideally with hot fudge) I can immediately conjure up happy memories of playing Street Fighter II with my best friend, or The Simpsons with my sister, at Wonder ice cream parlor, right around the corner from my house. The sight or smell of a Nathan’s hot dog (with any luck, accompanied by fries that are smothered with ‘aged cheddar cheese’) bring me to one of many a Saturday afternoon with my dad at Aqueduct or Belmont racetrack, where I acquired at an early age a habit of hunting for pricing anomalies in markets, and a skepticism of the wisdom of such endeavors, that perhaps help explain both my current employment in the financial sector and my conflicted feelings about it. And veal parmigiana – preferably the tough, cheap stuff, drowning in red sauce and pizza-grade cheese – oh, let’s not even try to go there. As a Brooklyn kid, one’s notion of the proper taste of Italian staples, bagels with a shmear, and egg nog is invariably shaped by one’s neighborhood establishments. Forget the milk-fed, organically-raised and gently-massaged cutlets that may show up in Whole Foods. I will always prefer my veal parm from Sonny John’s on Avenue N.
However, none of these really satisfy the definition of a ‘secret eating’ – they are relatively straightforward comfort foods, perhaps seasoned with a dash of place and time, and a pinch of generalized nostalgia. And even now it is hard to re-create the experience of enjoying these meals as a child who cared not about calories, trans fats, and triglyceride levels. Such knowledge tends to impart an unfamiliar, bitter aftertaste.
My best example remains the same as when I wrestled with this question years ago: a slightly under-ripe banana, mashed into a paste with a fork just prior to consumption. The fork, essentially, pre-chews the banana for you, allowing you to bypass the initial astringent, starchy phase to jump directly to the just-sweet-enough pulp. Once the banana is soft enough to eat properly, it is already too late for mashing. The pulp becomes cloying; too much a reminder the ‘banana flavoring’ in milks and candies. Why this taste and this method of preparation remain so resonant for me, I’m not really sure. But, like Fisher’s tangerines, it’s hard for me to imagine that someone else would enjoy this peculiar mixture in quite the same way as I do.