The Taste Archive (creative nonfiction)

Some months ago Erik and I were preparing to go out with a foodie friend, and Erik said, “Some part of my memory is still full [from the last time we ate with this friend].” I enjoyed this notion of memory as a series of stomachs, and made a note to freewrite on this at some point.

Today I found this note again, and had fifteen minutes to go at it. I started writing and things went in a quite different direction than what I expected. I got so into it I was almost late meeting Alejna for lunch, and even on the train, I was jotting down ideas. I’m calling it creative nonfiction because bits of it are true, but the whole notion of specialized storage for taste memory is, as far as I know, my invention. The “memory palace” idea is a real one but not one I have personally used. Those of you who remember my “Yesteryear Apothecary” pieces will recognize a similarity.

Dimly lit room with open window

The Taste Archive

Food memory isn’t like other memories. Taste is elusive, like scent; it’s the one thing that confirms for sure that you’re dreaming, so they say: if you can taste it, you’re awake. It turns out actually our taste memories aren’t stored in the same place as our other memories — not even smell. If you imagine your memory as a palace, a house, an edifice containing many rooms and hallways, your taste memories are kept in one place, one storeroom, one archive dedicated to this sense alone.

If I close my eyes and enter my memory palace I can tell you the way to get to taste. It’s a different pathway than the one I use for most everything else. When I push open the tall, heavy, carved wooden doors there is a dim landing with a hall table on the right, a lamp glowing yellow, a big rectangular mirror, a long carpet runner, and a steep, worn wooden staircase on the left, leading up. There is a doorway directly off to the right of this entry with more warm light and some chintzy but elegant armchairs, and down the runnered hall past the staircase are more doors, and upstairs there are more rooms, but we want the door to the left, the one that leads into the kitchen. The kitchen isn’t lit today, except by the smallish rather high-set windows on the front and side walls, which I guess means the front of the house faces north and that’s not good feng shui — but who cares; my memory palace has nothing to lose. The kitchen is large, well-equipped, clean, all the surfaces pale and with the austere elegance of a bygone era’s notion of utilitarian. But we are only passing through. There is a door along the left side, past the counters and island and sinks; it looks like a pantry, with a translucent glass window set into the door, from which more yellow light glows — who is inside? We won’t check. There are shelves on the opposite wall, lined with empty baking tins and baskets, but we continue past there, to where there is a door on the left leading to the backyard, and facing it an open doorway on the right with a set of steep stairs leading down into darkness. In a regular house this would be creepy, but here it isn’t: no spiders lurking, no cobwebs to brush past, no horror-movie surprises. Some people’s memory palaces are probably filled with doors no one wants to open, but mine is well-ordered, and this is the way to the tasting room.

Halfway down, the stairs angle to the left, 90 degrees, and on the landing there is a series of black iron wall hooks — a convenient place for a coat, hat, apron, or purse — and a battered wooden stool, the high round kind with four legs and rungs between them: a spot to sit for a moment before entering the cavern of taste memory. At the bottom of the stairs, where it is very dark, a sconce flickers to life automatically at your entrance — though it is a candle, not electric. There before us is an arched wooden door with black iron hinges, like a cellar door in a movie, oh yes, and a keyhole set directly into the wood, that responds perfectly to the ancient key I hold in my hand. A satisfying click, and a turn, and the door swings inward.

The room is vast, spacious, populated with freestanding shelves all around and a comfortable sitting area in the center. The room is cool but I am not cold. The periphery feels dim and grey but the hanging lights in the center lend a festive air of solitary camaraderie. Here I will not be alone, even if there is no one with me. There is another intricate carpet here, two inviting upholstered armchairs, round tables of gleaming polished wood, a carafe of water and a very fine linen napkin. Here I will sit — when I have retrieved the particular memory from the archive — and savor.

Taste memories are not stored uniformly; they have different requirements, like food and drink themselves. Some are kept in big brass jars, like loose-leaf tea; some flow from the pages of aged books, like recipes; some are chrome dome-covered plates, as room service; some are in corked flasks propped in wooden racks, like spices or test tubes. The receptacles fit the contents, though the contents themselves are invisible; they are only memory, after all.

When I bring one back to the sitting area I may place it beside me or on a table in front, to enjoy as I would a snack or a lengthy meal — however I wish. There is no waiter to disturb me, no interruption for the second course; hot soup never grows cold; a granita never loses its frozen state. There is that second chair. I may bring a friend, though the friend must be someone who already has access to my memory palace, and such ones are few and far between. Even so, it is possible my friend will not taste what I do. Such is the nature of memory.

I come here often, visiting with the meals of long ago; this morning’s breakfast is there as well, though I don’t know or care where; I find the memory of flavor intensifies with time, and certain unremarkable meals simply vanish with the years, never to be remembered: quick sandwiches in train stations, bowls of cereal, someone else’s holiday chocolate at the office.

Today I am revisiting the raspberry sorbet I had for dessert at a Legal Sea Foods in Boston in 1999. I find it on the edge of a broad wooden shelf: a heavy parfait glass on a white plate under a tall glass dome. The glass looks empty, but when I turn it this way and that, I see glimpses of the berry color out the corner of my eye: now seen, now gone. I take the ensemble to my chair and place it on one of the tables. So many years after the original tasting, I suspect the sorbet was oversweetened, with that cloying, mass-produced heaviness, but in my memory it is perfect. I lift the dome, place it beside the dish, and sit back, closing my eyes. Pure sweet raspberry swirls around me like the perfumed breeze of a rose garden in July, like a first rustling party dress, like anticipation. I was on a sorbet kick that summer, having discovered it for the first time in upstate New York on a road trip with my mother and youngest sister. We were visiting colleges, I was learning to read road maps, seeing cities like Baltimore and Manhattan. Everything tasted new that summer, and sorbet felt like the distilled essence of all of that: excitement reduced to sugar on my tongue.

Some food memories, even more than this one, come with the complete shebang: time of first taste, date, place, company, context. There are labels on the containers, if I care to read. Others lack even the faintest of markings; I find them shoved to the back of shelves or hidden in dark corners, mysterious and, more often than not, incomplete. I sit with them, but they evade me, their flavor the merest hint, like a half-whiff of aroma from a street vendor a block away and around the corner. Occasionally, but very rarely, if I sit with such a memory long enough a provenance will come to me — a type of cuisine maybe, or a setting — but usually not. All I can do then is replace the container where I found it, in hopes I’ll be able to locate it again for a future try.

For most memories, though, I scarcely have to search; thinking of them reorders the shelves, so that the memory foremost in my mind comes to the front of the nearest shelf as well. True, I do go down to the archive sometimes just to wander and remember — but even then I can’t read the labels without some kind of trigger: a related memory, a recent experience, a reminiscence with a friend. There are walls to the tasting room, but its contents are infinite: newer memories replacing the old, old memories resurfacing after a talk with my parents or a flip through childhood diaries.

Taste memories are always stored this way, I’ve read, but I don’t know what anyone else’s archive looks like. I’ve never been invited into one…