Posted on June 25th, 2012
All gustatory experiences are not equal: they range from bad to okay to banal to good to great to pass-me-a-proverbial-cigarette beatific. We all know bad and okay – most often these are actually the result of a well-intentioned and inexperienced cook trying to do something nice. New spouses, small children, and supportive relatives of a newly declared vegan or gluten-free eater often accidentally create something that has to be choked down with a smile and hopefully a stiff drink. Banal gustatory experiences are myriad in our world of processed food. Cereal and milk always tastes like cereal and milk, frozen pizza always tastes like frozen pizza, and peanut butter and jelly always tastes like elementary school. These are fine things–their actualities always line up with our expectations. We can consume them without much thought at all being devoted to the experience. Even good experiences come a dime-a-dozen for most because people generally consume what they like; therefore most of their chosen gustatory sensations are good. Experiences between great and beatific are few and far between. These experiences are fleeting and have a spectrum of their own ranging from seasonal to elusive and coinciding with this spectrum is a gamut of heartache.
Seasonally fleeting gustatory experiences are the ones that are abundantly available during their time but we cannot have at any other time even if we so desired. Fresh native corn on the cob, Girl Scout cookies, and the McDonald’s Shamrock Shake all fall into this category. Most of us have at least one seasonal favorite that we anticipate and enjoy more than most other food or drink in part due to their limited time only mystique. For me it is watermelon flavored beer, which I know sounds repulsive. I can’t even describe it to you in a way that sounds enticing because it really is like having a watermelon Jolly Rancher and a pale ale simultaneously. But somehow there exists a synergy in this combination that I find inexpressibly satisfying. The marketing gurus at Thomas Hooker Brewery tout it as “Strangely Refreshing” and I am inclined to agree and leave it at that. The first annual taste of any seasonally available item is always the best. It has been deeply anticipated and it is what awakens us to the new season upon us. I had my first Watermelon Ale of the season a few days ago. I purchased a six pack last week but was waiting for just the right time to experience the first taste of the season, a warm Friday evening after a rainy week—and it was perfect. If I could describe it to you accurately I would but let’s leave it as cool, refreshing, and tasted like summer. For the rest of the summer I will continue my affair with Watermelon Ale all the while knowing that as with all good things it will come to an end. Some people try to cheat the season and hide girl scout cookies in the back of the pantry or buy a case of beer right at the end of the season, and while I may nurse my last few Watermelon Ales into mid September that is as far as I can take it. Cheating the season only cheapens the experience which in turn is only cheating yourself. The rightful heartache that comes with the wane of any season and its exclusive foods is not so bad, it reminds us that we still live in a world where things grow and seasons change and we can’t get everything we want at a twenty-four hour supermarket whenever we want it just because we want it. Some things are meant to be savored in their own time.
After seasonal, we have things that only come but once a year. For some it is the majesty of dyed Easter eggs, or a Cookie Puss ice cream cake they have had once a year on their birthday since grade school, or Aunt Sue’s famous baked beans only made for the Fourth of July picnic. For the fifty or so friends and family closest to my husband and me it may be the handmade chocolates I give away between Christmas and New Year’s. Everyone has some culinary delight that comes once during each rotation around the sun that they love (or at least I certainly hope everyone does). I have my grandmother’s Christmas Eve meal which I begin anticipating just after Thanksgiving. It has been the same as far back as I can remember: lasagne with bite-sized homemade meatballs, and a Friendly’s Jubilee Roll –wait, one year we had tortoni but that was a fine substitution. My grandmother is Polish and she married my grandfather who is Italian but will not eat garlic or onions. She was taught how to cook the Italian staples by his family but had the added challenge of having to feed the pickiest Italian man in New England. I give you the background in order to make clear that there is no way anyone will ever recreate my grandmother’s sauce, her meatballs, or her annual lasagne: they are born of circumstances that cannot be imitated or recreated. The lasagne begins with a trip to a local Italian cheese shop for some seriously smooth and fresh whole milk ricotta cheese. Then there is a double or triple batch of sauce which is made with pork sausage, beef meatballs, pork chops, and a Christmas-time special: braciole . Also, sometime during the frying of all these meats she makes bite sized meatballs smaller than a teaspoon and reserves them for the lasagne. I have no idea what noodles she uses or how she cooks them so perfectly or how the whole lasagne consisting of ricotta, noodles, sauce, and mini meatballs stays so well balanced. The noodles don’t soak up all the extra liquid and get bloated and limp leaving the rest of the lasagne dry, they retain their noodle-y structure and have a flavor of their own – I know she uses flat noodles not curly ones and I can only assume this is an integral part of the magic. Nor is it too saucy, or drowned in stringy mozzarella—in fact I don’t think there is any mozzarella at all. You can see that this experience, be it fleeting, has pretty much ruined all other lasagne for me, as I have outlined all the flaws with most lasagnes – including my own humble attempts. While I cannot deny that this lasagne would bring Mario Batali to tears in spite of its simplicity, I also have to believe its mere annual appearance and connection to the people I love most on the planet creates a magic that enhances this experience beyond just the ingredients. The heartache that accompanies annual experiences is that they are always linked to some tradition and usually some person and while no matter how steadfastly we hold onto tradition nothing stays the same forever. We know deep down some day, however faraway, that this moment, this time, this place, this meal is temporary. I don’t know if my grandmother would ever make the lasagne outside of Christmas Eve. I have never asked her. I wouldn’t dare cheat this experience.
Next I must address the Russian Roulette category of fleeting gustatory experiences. I find that this most often applies to fresh produce, especially stone fruits, but can also be experienced at restaurants. You know that your peach, or pear, or disco fries have the potential to be incredible, an experience bordering on extreme greatness but you really have no idea if that greatness will strike today or anytime soon . The peach smelled ripe but isn’t quite there yet, the pear felt soft and juicy but had a severe graininess that you just didn’t do it for you. And the past two times you had disco fries at your favorite pub were vastly different experiences: once it was amazing, an experience not to be outdone, a harmonious balance of potato-gravy-and-cheese, the perfect comfort to your shitty workday, and the time following they were so drowned in cheese you couldn’t even get through half–so really, who knows what will appear today when you order them? I find the mecca of the culinary Roulette wheel to be a perfect avocado. Avocados are almost always good, they add richness and creaminess to anything they grace while still being a humble plant product. Buying super ripe avocados for mashing into guacamole immediately is rarely a challenge, but I find I usually buy a firm avocado and take my chances. Sometimes I leave it out, wait and hope it gets ripe enough to mash on the day I feel like guacamole. Other times I put it in the fridge hoping to stave off its ripening and pull it out a day or two before I want to slice it up for a burger or a sandwich, hoping I have timed it right. Sometimes it’s a bit too soft to be properly sliced and sometimes it’s still a little too firm for maximum enjoyment, but sometimes it is perfect. This happened a few days ago, the same warm Friday evening I had my first Watermelon Ale. The avocado was perfect–not too hard and not too soft, just right to be sliced and put onto my tempeh bacon, lettuce, tomato, poached egg sandwich with mustard and sriracha. It held its shape when sliced but was soft enough to yield peak creaminess to the sandwich experience. This was a perfect avocado, an event that comes along just often enough to remind you that it does exist and is not in fact a mirage or figment of your memory. The joy of striking it rich on the culinary roulette wheel is always tempered by the heartache that gently reminds you that you have no idea or control when it will happen again.
Finally, we must discuss the saddest and most elusive of all gustatory experiences: the lone ranger. These are the experiences that reach the beatific, a meal so incredible that you need a shot and a beer immediately following just to ease yourself off the high. There is no room for heartache during this experience because you are too busy pushing your own limits of gluttony to think this might be the one and only time you eat this meal. The heartache comes later, much later. The trouble with these solitary experiences is that you have no idea they are about to occur because it’s the first time you are going in for this meal and you often have no prior knowledge that it will in fact be your last meal exactly like it. There is no way to prepare for the experience or the subsequent knowledge of its isolation. With all that said let me share with you my most recent lone ranger. My husband isn’t a huge shellfish fan so I rarely, if ever, make it at home. I love baked stuffed shrimp but many places seem to make it as an homage to mediocrity. One day I had a hankering for some baked stuffed shrimp and I found a review of a seafood and jazz place in town. It had apparently been there for quite some time but was just off the main street and I had never noticed it. We decide to go for dinner, and despite it being almost deserted the food was incredible. The baked stuffed shrimp were amazing, dripping with butter, and a very-lemony-real-crab-meat stuffing . The family style side of julienne vegetables was also delicious and doused with butter. I thought to myself “Here is a place I can come when I have a hankering for seafood. I bet everything is good – who am I kidding I am only ever going to order the shrimp.” I was in a state of ecstasy that prevented me from having a conversation with my husband about anything other than how amazing my meal was. We made it home for a night cap and I went to bed fat and happy. A few months went by and my hankering returned, but this time I thought I knew the remedy. We went downtown, parked, and he listened to me blather on about stuffed shrimp on the short walk to the restaurant doors that were closed – permanently. I was devastated. The heartache was severe. It took me weeks to mourn the loss of the possibility of repeating my gluttony. I probably should have spent more time noticing how empty it was the last time we were there but I was taken over by forces I could not control. I can only take solace in knowing that I could not have enjoyed it any more if I had known it was going to be a one time experience. I enjoyed that meal to the fullest extent of my ability and had I known what was to come the ecstasy probably would have been laced with heartache and in fact not ecstasy at all. Although these single experiences bring with them the deepest sorrow in addition to the greatest euphoria we are still the better for them.
All types of ephemeral gustatory experiences provide us with two equally important things: the feelings of joy and familiarity and the knowledge of powerlessness in a world where we believe we have conquered all.