About a year ago I was in Paris to visit the office of a prestigious newspaper in the hopes of getting direction on my stalling journalistic career. I left the impressive newsroom feeling overwhelmed and slightly demotivated, measuring the size of the gap between the team of journalists and me. It was a gloomy morning in Paris, the sky was grey, a drizzle was falling from the sky, not strong enough to bother getting an umbrella but enough to get you wet. The garbage men had been on strike for about a week so the trash bags were pouring out of their green containers and onto the streets. With the humidity and the mild summer heat, the smell was nauseating.
It did not look like it was going to be a good day. Despite all these hostile factors, I decided to walk the few kilometers that separated me from my house. Suddenly I became distracted by a pleasant and familiar smell. It came from a small bakery, similar to the other thousand you can find all over the city. Having skipped breakfast that morning, I decided to enter and get something to eat.
As soon as I entered I saw a metal tray filled with pain au chocolat coming straight out of the oven. I didn’t hesitate long. As the baker handed me the little bag with the pastry, I felt the heat coming through and could see the butter leaving stains on the paper. My heart started to beat a little faster. As soon as I left the bakery, I opened my precious container and took a bite. At this moment I could’ve cried of joy. A wave of warmth took over my body. I didn’t know what it was or where it came from but this bite of warm, buttery and flaky pain au chocolat was bringing me a joy so immense that nothing at this moment could’ve disturbed this feeling.
This almost exact feeling was described in a much more eloquent way by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past. In the novel, when the protagonist brings to his mouth the spoon of tea and madeleine crumbs, he describes “an exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory.”
I couldn’t quite remember why the pain au chocolat triggered these emotions but after experiencing it a second time a few months after that episode at an airport bakery after a 6 a.m. flight, it came back to me. Growing up, on Sunday mornings, my father would buy viennoiseries for breakfast. As soon as he would get home he would slightly heat up the oven and would place croissant and pain au chocolat in it until they would become warm and soft on the inside but still flaky on the outside. The warm pain au chocolat carried a piece of my childhood.
Similarly, in his essay, A Magical Bagel, the food writer Calvin Thrilin described his quest to find the dark pumpernickel bagels from Tannenbaum’s, in Manhattan, he used to get with his daughters every Sunday morning as they were growing up. He hoped that by finding it it would make one of them leave California were she recently moved, back to New York. Just like with the pain au chocolat, these bagels are not only food, they are symbolic of family times, they carry not only the responsibility of great taste but also the story of a family. He writes, “When they were children, bagels were not only their staple food- the food they clung to in unfamiliar surroundings- but also the food used in important rituals.”
Of course nostalgia and family bonds are one explanation for the irrational attachment one has with food but it feels like something deeper is at place. The pleasure one gets from food is something intense often inexplicable. It has little to do with the quality of the ingredients or the numbers of Michelin stars the chef has, it relates to emotions, to senses. I felt compelled to ask people around me what they favorite dishes were and why. The answers varied, the narratives too, and most importantly no one could tell me why, but everyone had an answer.
When I asked my father what his favorite dish was, his eyes instantly lit up. One thing no one has ever said about him is that he is expressive with his feelings. His stoicism is legendary; yet, as he described to me the dish Germaine- the house cook he grew up with in Paris- used to make I could see water building up in his eyes.
Out of his five siblings my dad, then the little Frederic, was Germaine’s favorite and she knew just the way to his heart: a strawberry Vacherin, a cake that consists of a base of meringue mounted with a generous layer of whipped cream and then topped with strawberries. I curiously have never seen my father order a Vacherin in the rare times that it is offered in restaurants. I think no matter how well prepared, none of them can compare to those memories of childhood and innocence he cherishes.
Similarly, every time my friend Boris goes back home to visit his parents in Salem, his mother makes the a poppy seed cheesecake. A few years ago she started to experiment by adding lemon or raisins to the dessert. His aversion for these variations is completely irrational (expect maybe the raisins one, raisins have nothing to do in a cheesecake), he felt that by modifying the original recipe she was betraying the tacit relationship he had with the cake. It was no longer the dessert that brought back this unexplainable feeling of warmth and comfort. The lemon-poppy seed cheesecake might’ve tasted better gustatively speaking but true food love has little to do with taste.
This confirms itself to be even truer after noticing people’s reaction after asking them about their favorite dish. As they reveal their answer they are hesitant, almost embarrassed to admit that the name that came to their mind is something so simple, so trivial. It is never as sophisticated or original as they had hoped it to be.
When a Peruvian friend told me about her favorite dish it like a confession. Papas Rellenas are what one could qualify as a poor men’s dish. The ingredients required are potatoes, ground beef and a lot of condiments. The potatoes are boiled, mashed, filled with stuffing, reshaped as potatoes and then deep-fried. They are usually served with a side of rice.
You would never find them at a restaurant. Papas Rellenas was also the first dish her grandmother taught her to make. It was a ludic experience; she touched and shaped the potato, almost like play-do, and then you would watch it change color as it fries in the pan. The love story she has with Papas Rellenas is not only one of happy memories but also a physical and sensory one.
For my Cameroonian mother her favorite dish also comes as sensory experience. Although she would probably deny it, I am certain the greatest attraction for her dish is that you have to eat with the hands. It is that aspect that gets that little sparkle in her eyes and a gigantic smile on her face. It is comprised of an okra and pistachio sauce that is mixed with any meat or fish of choice, with a side of compact ball made out of manioc flour that they call couscous. The concept is to break a piece of the manioc with the hands and use it as a scoop to get the sauce.
When I asked her why it was her favorite she answered that it stimulates all her senses; the smell, the consistency of the dough, the heat of the sauce in the mouth. It is a regressive and sensory experience.
Last week, in Berlin, I went to an asparagus dinner. It is the season for white asparagus and Germany takes a lot of pride in its Beelitz specimen. We were about 15 people with a mountain of asparagus to pick from. Towards the end, in the huge plate in front of me was laying one last asparagus. Suddenly my neighbor, reached out and grabbed it by the hand, she swiftly pushed it to her mouth, looking at me with guilt, quickly replaced by excitement. With her mouth still full she said to me, “it tastes better with the hand!” There was something so instinctive, so primitive in her action; it was as if she couldn’t help herself. It made me think that maybe, the reason we love food so much is because in some ways it brings us to our true self, back to times were we didn’t have to reason, where we were driven by instincts and our senses. Simpler times.