This past weekend I went to New York City for 36 hours for a museum studies class. While I was there I ate at Lombardi’s, the self-proclaimed “first pizzeria in America,” and tried the white pizza, which was sauce-less, dotted with giant florettes of ricotta and drizzled with garlic-infused olive oil. I ate soft pine-nut-studded pignoli and tri-colored, chocolate-lined rainbow cookies at Ferrara, a patisserie in Little Italy. I ate French toast-flavored rice pudding from retro-looking space-saucer-like bowls at Rice to Riches, a rice pudding shop on Spring Street.
And while the city itself could be described in so many ways — through buildings on the skyline, Broadway musicals the Museum Mile and endless stretches of sidewalk — I think food is one of the most important elements of place and experience. It’s unsurprising that Marcel Proust had one, then two, then three bites of a buttery madeleine teacake, and was immediately transported to a very specific moment on a Sunday in Combray, watching his aunt dip the cake into her tea. It’s similarly unsurprising that the taste of sticky rice or spaghetti can transport you to 10 years ago when — a few states away, two feet shorter and 100 pounds lighter — you were struggling to look over the countertop to peek at something simmering on the stove.
I believe in the importance of food as something more than the experience of satiating one’s stomach, but as something that carefully constructs our conceptions of self. There’s a reason why there is still a hefty allowance of articles devoted to The New York Times’s “Dining and Wine” section. And there’s a reason why the artsy, literary New Yorker makes room for articles like Adam Gopnik’s recent paean to cookbooks. Food is a cultural touch point, a relevant mile marker for travelers, a thing that, while fleeting and transient in experience (a mouthful lasts only so long), is still noteworthy enough to be critiqued by Zagat and still intimate enough to be held sacred as a personal or familial experience.
For me, New York is not associated with Times Square or haute couture, but instead with home — it is centered on my grandmother’s humid kitchen filled with the smell of gas stoves and simmering chicken soups, on sour-smelling fish markets where jittery frogs or crab sit in tubs, waiting for their inevitable demise, on Italian shops where 10-pound hunks of hard, yellow-rinded cheese hang at the window.
The city is made of tastes for me, like the sweet, burnt edges of Cantonese roast pork tasting of umami and the thin, chewy crust of Lombardi’s pizza coated with cheese, fresh basil and thinly-sliced pancetta. All of these foods are intimately connected with memories and stories where vivid, checkered tablecloths and table conversations are reiterated in my mind with a slice of pizza or a bowl of noodles and soup.
Taste opens up an entire vocabulary of experience through which we can communicate, where thyme or garlic can conjure complete moments. Roasted tomatoes and fresh pickled cucumbers remind me of Kentucky and its raging heat and how I placed pennies to be smashed on the railroad tracks after a belly full of Sonic milkshakes. Fried green tomatoes remind me of Tennessee and the hole-in-the-wall, cement-floored restaurant that served fried chicken with cocktail napkins that turned translucent from soaking up the oil on my fingers. Steamed lobster with no butter reminds me of Maine’s seaside towns, overcast and gray, where I was cell phone-less and quickly speaking on pay telephones while worriedly checking my pockets for extra quarters.
We have a version of the Proustian madeleine we carry with us, where even a Chicago deep-dish pizza can bring about memories of last spring or a decade ago. Food brings about anecdotes and stories — it’s a means with which we express ourselves, a jumping-off point for communicating what is important to us. And, while our memories are multi-faceted, ethereal things that are easily forgotten on the tips of tongues, in some strange way, food can revive these parts of ourselves, give voice to the no-longer-existing five-year-old in us who loved macaroni and cheese or bring back the presence of a grandfather who has passed away.
In the delicacy of food and its subtle hints of herbs, meats and spices lies something incredibly substantial. As Proust wrote in “In Search of Lost Time”: “After the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone … bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Food is important to the way we view ourselves and the way we view the places we inhabit and have inhabited. Like keepsake photographs, handwritten notes and certain films, it reminds us of things that exist now in memory alone, bringing back what has been forgotten or pushed to the back of our minds. Food tells us stories, and through the memento of food, we tell ours — it is a means through which we communicate, an element of identity we hold close to ourselves, just as much as we hold loved ones close.