Food is many things to different people, but this much I am sure of: for everyone, food is sentimental.
Thoughts of meals of yesteryear bring tears to our eyes and flood our brains with images, smells, and emotions. Walking into a place with a familiar smell transports us to a grandmother’s kitchen, or a backyard picnic table or a trip to a land far away. Sometimes we even embellish the flavor and overall satisfaction of a food memory because it came at such an important time in our lives that we’ve convinced ourselves that we lived through a life-altering experience.
We might crave Nana’s pot roast even though it was tough as a set of Firestones, but NANA made it so it must have been fantastic. Or maybe you like your eggs over easy for no other reason than that’s how your Dad liked them and that’s how you grew up eating them.
Obviously I have my own stories to reflect on — my grandmother made a fantastic brisket, and making matzoh balls still sends me into a trance where I’m sure I’ve returned to her kitchen. But some of my most memorable food experiences (and consequently my adventurous palate) came out of not having a kitchen at all. When I was a young child, my parents bought a brownstone in Boston’s South End. This was years before property rates soared and trendy shops and restaurants lined Huntington, Tremont, and Columbus Avenues. My Mom and Dad were fixing the place up themselves and we were without a working kitchen for an extended amount of time.
Needing to feed two young boys with something tasty, quick, and affordable is a challenge for anyone in any time period, but my folks took a different approach. Boston’s small but high-octane Chinatown was close by and we spent many, many dinners there in those years. Dishes were served family style and there was something for everyone, even my then picky eating brother. My parents evidently have good palates and sought out the places filled with Chinese people, not those serving General Gau’s chicken and simple Beef and Broccoli. Instead, we ate at a place called “the Golden Gate.” The waiters knew us, though I really don’t think we got any freebies like I’m now accustomed to treating regular guests to at either of my two restaurants.
They served tea in water glasses — this I recall because of the smell and the sensation of trying to pick up the glass with my exceptionally small hands only to burn myself because there was no handle.
The floors were filthy but at least they kept the tables clean.
Growing up in the 1970s was not great for aspiring food lovers (or unbeknownst to all of us, chefs?). Fast food was tightening its grip on America, “Chinese” food often came battered to be dipped in “duck” sauce. Fluffernutters were an acceptable lunch item. But the list of dishes I often ate and the ingredients that made them unique were far from commonplace back then. Don’t get me wrong, I devoured my share of Oreos and Stouffer’s frozen pizzas, but while I enjoyed them, the meals I most coveted centered around my trips to Chinatown.
So when I take my 5-year-old on our own excursions for eel and chicken feet, I smell that aroma that is indigenous to the part of town that I grew up visiting for tons of family meals. And to this day, I’m always transported back to those evenings loaded with crispy pan-fried noodles and pork ribs with fermented black beans. I’m pretty sure I would love that food regardless of my past, but the smells and flavors I associate with those memories make me hungry with anticipation of the next night I have free to head back into Chinatown.