Saturday, May 06, 2006

Nectarines and Ruby Slippers

Charlie Brown was overcome by the ghost hiding in a bowl of his morning cereal. The same spirit caught Snoopy off guard and transported them both back to when they were master and puppy – before Lucy, before Woodstock. Just a little bald boy and his beagle. Entenmanns signed a deal with the spirit world, securing for decades to come, the presence of ghosts in golden iced fudge cake, butter pound loaf and cookies. In his first draft, L. Frank Baum had Dorothy transported back to Kansas by a ghost sleeping inside a cracker in her dress pocket. That same ghost went on to be the one that brought a little boy back in the slick of a nectarine slice to a picnic between the trees in Queens. Hiding in the yellow crescent flesh to haunt him with home.

We know little about the ghosts that hide in between taste molecules waiting to be invoked at the proper moment; waiting to reveal themselves to unsuspecting taste buds for a one way trip up the nervous system to brains expecting nothing more haunting than flavor.

Okay, ok. Maybe I’m taking it too far; cartoons, ghosts, Dorothy – c’mon. But I think it is undeniable that food and its ability to conjure memory, wanted and preferred repressed, is a significant part of eating - one that has gone virtually unexplored in modern cuisine. Taste and smell were used with great effect by shaman and pre-industrial healers. Burning sage cleared the space of bad spirits. Ritual teas were drunk to connect with the ghost world. It is an art that has been largely lost and not yet re-found by today’s chefs and other witch doctors of contemporary culture. But who among us has not been transported to another place and time by the taste and aroma of food? I can’t even think about sautéed calf’s brains without stepping into the light and winding up in the Hell’s Kitchen apartment my father moved to when my folks divorced when I was nine (“Stay away from the light….”). Well that’s not a very nice one, but there seems to me to be a chance for some real alchemy here.

And Lord knows we need an outlet to deal with ghosts and ghouls these days. Post-9-11, America is obsessed with them. You can’t turn on the television or go to the movies without being scared out of your bageebers. I for one would rather evoke grandmother spirits in the rising mist of steamy peach pie than get all wigged out by Patricia Arquette or Jennifer Love Hewitt.

For starters, I ate a nectarine at the farmer’s market in the park next to Ground Zero. It had an ole time flavor I hadn’t tasted in years, hadn’t remembered. In its soft sweetness and slight vegetable complexity I sensed something with one foot next to its pit and one next to the peddle of my red glittery banana seat bike in August 1978, speeding along the asphalt in Forest Park, Queens.

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