Food is different for different people. It could simply be fuel, something to burn up in order to carry on with the more important aspects of life. It could be a thing to enjoy and derive pleasure from. It could be a nuisance, getting in the way of being thin and being in control of everything. It could be a basic need for survival that is heartbreakingly missing from so many people’s lives. It could be and it is all of these things. But sometimes food becomes more important than the ingredients it is made up of, the taste unfolding in your mouth, the feel of it as you bite and chew and swallow, the energy it provides. Sometimes food can be a way to communicate. Sometimes food can become a symbol – of hope, of love, of a particular time. Food can be a way to remember.
I am a so-called foodie, by nature as well as by profession. Because of its prominence in my life I get tired of food and frustrated by food, and often feel that I am trapped by it. And I am, inescapably (because whether by choice or by chance, my memories are built around food), perhaps even built with food. And so when I think back to a person or a time, I am unable to stop myself from thinking of the food I ate with that person or at that time. I involuntarily envision plates filled, tables set, forks laden, glasses lifted, dishes consumed. Parades of meals that I wade through as I try to get at the time or the person I am trying to remember.
But it doesn’t help to fight against the way my memories are programmed, to do so only keeps me from remembering. So I accept the endless snapshots and cameos of meals, allow them to wash through my mind and then along with them, often taking me by surprise, come those things that I am really trying to see again and feel again. Sometimes almost too much for me.
There was one day one the beach with my father, mother, sister and I, technically winter but to a family mostly living in Russia the wintry South African sun seemed almost hot. After poking around in rocky pools of seawater filled with tiny darting fish, bright sea anemones and mysterious creatures hiding in shadowy corners, we retreated to our sandy alcove, sheltered from the breeze, and baked contentedly. We were hungry, as always seems to be the case when suddenly exposed to the sea and the sun, and had luckily brought provisions. Amongst these provisions was a thing called a Sweetie Pie, and although I don’t know if Sweetie Pies are chocolates, candies or cookies, they’re definitely not pies. A chewy, biscuity wafer topped with a large dome of smooth, creamy, sticky marshmallow, slightly malted in flavour, the whole thing covered in milk chocolate and wrapped in thin, crinkly purple foil. At that point in my life I loved Sweetie Pies more than is strictly rational, hence the presence of a Sweetie Pie on the beach that day.
Now, there are methods to eating Sweetie Pies. In my method, you bite the top of the dome off, taking as little of the marshmallow filling with the chocolate, and you let the chocolate dissolve slowly on your tongue. Then you start scooping the filling out your tongue, little by little, until it is almost all gone. Finally, you break the chocolate up, pile onto the wafer, and put the whole mess in your mouth, which is difficult but part of the fun.
That day, I unwrapped my Sweetie Pie and prepared to take the first ritualistic bite. I think I was aware of my father opposite me having an uncannily gleeful expression but I was far too distracted to care. So I was completely taken by surprise when, sinking my teeth into chocolate that had been softened by the sun, my father reached over and gently but firmly smooshed the whole sweet, sticky mess into my mouth and across my face. He was chortling like a schoolboy, and when the shock subsided my mother, sister and I joined him in giggling for what seemed like hours. It was a perfect little prank.
Then there is a general memory, a composite of many similar incidents. My father, standing by the two-plate stove in our cramped kitchen in Moscow, a pot of Napolitana sauce simmering in front of him. A teaspoon hovering in front of his face, which is a study in concentration. When I was younger, the sauce would have been one made by my mother, although in later years it was sometimes my sauce on the stove. And my mother and I hovering, waiting for the verdict – more salt, more sugar, more pepper, more simmering. Only very rarely nothing. Our official domestic taster, and an astute one.
These days, when I see a Sweetie Pie I rarely buy one, but I always sense my father’s mischievousness without necessarily recalling the seaside prank. And when I taste my sauces for seasoning, I inadvertently take on my father’s stance and think for a second longer than I really need to as I see him. I don’t always want these reminders. There are days when I am feeling frail and an unexpected Sweetie Pie can gut me completely, slamming a fist of longing into me that nearly has me doubling over with the pain of it. But there is nothing I can do about it, and sometimes when I smile to myself as I dip my tasting spoon into a sauce I am glad.