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What Memory Tells Us

Friday, September 25, 2009
This morning, on my local NPR affiliate, they asked for listener responses to a presumably simple question: "What is your earliest memory?" I had an answer ready, but was in the car and -- while I may not obey ALL traffic laws -- I do believe that our state's prohibition against talking on a cell phone while driving is a good idea.

So, instead of jabbering away on the radio, I thought a bit about my ready answer and various implications of same.

Anyone with functioning eyes and ears knows that memoirs, as a genre, have become very big in the past few years (and not just culinary memoirs, a form I have abused with some regularity). This can be explained, in part, by the fact that the largest segment of the population -- the Baby Boomers -- are now at an age where they have something to look back at, and are beginning to realize that their memories may soon go the way of the dodo and passenger pigeon. Clearly, ego has a lot to do with the phenomenon -- but ego has a lot to do with all writing, doesn't it?

What memoir writing does for its writers is the same as what it does for writers of fiction (admittedly, neither genre is overly dependent upon adherence to the facts) -- it helps writers to learn something they don't already know.

We all have these little snippets of memory, which we catalog in our heads with short tags, such as "I was in the hospital." We often make the mistake of thinking that the tag is the entire memory. When we start to write about it, however, all the collateral parts of the experience, the location, the people, the time, the season, the smell, the complete texture of the experience, become visible again. Those tags are merely entries in an index, an index that allows us to access everything -- but only when we consciously revisit it through writing (or other art form).

The other thing that memoir writing does -- if we let it -- is give us a chance to think about why we remember certain things and what, if anything, those tiny fragments of the past tell us about who we are in the present. Which brings me -- after all this digression, fascinating as it may be (to me, anyway) -- to my own earliest memory.

The mind, as Steven Pinker believes, is not made of language -- even though we tend to use language to describe what goes on in there. So much of that is non-verbal, that Pinker is surprised that language works as well as it does. We have heaps and heaps of memory fragments, most of which have nothing to to do with words. They are strung together according to logics that are, for the most part, inexplicable to us. The string that permits me to access my earliest memory is a series of events from my childhood, each somewhat traumatic from a child's point of view, that all occurred in the same place.

When I was about eight or nine, I went into the hospital to have my appendix removed. The first bed I occupied, before surgery, was in a dimly lit hallway, its floor covered in large black and white tiles. As soon as I looked down, those tiles brought back a memory of the previous time I had been there -- when, at age three, I had my tonsils removed (apparently, I came from the baby factory with a lot of unnecessary parts).

In that section of the memory string, I remembered seeing those tiles even earlier.

I had been in that same hall, when I was eighteen months old (with bronchial pneumonia). Back then, the bed was a crib, complete with wooden bars to keep me from falling out. I recall putting my head through those bars, and looking down. On those black and white tiles, just below me -- but definitely out of reach -- was a single green Lifesaver.

To this day, the memory of that unattainable candy -- complete with its fully-imagined artificial lime flavor and aroma -- remains vivid.

What keeps the memory so fresh? Somehow, a child's dread of being left alone in a strange place has become attached to the longing for that candy I could not reach. I do not remember the terror, I just imagine that it must have been part of the experience. What fascinates me is that no part of this string of memories is verbal (it is only now, in its recapture, that the details are committed to words), that no one else is there, that the scene is profoundly graphic, with its bold composition in black and white, accented with green -- and that the thing that holds it all together is an imagined flavor, a longing for unattainable gastronomic bliss.

The fact that I spent much of my life as a visual artist, only to leave it to become a food writer (both occupations which require long stretches of time spent alone with one's thoughts), I leave for the amusement of those who are inclined to psychological speculation. Whether that early experience is the cause of what came later, or if the longing that led to the memory being preserved was already part of what I am, remains terra incognita.

Food Sites for September 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009
August is finally gone (even though most of it felt like April), which means it's time for back-to-school, back-to-work -- and, for those of us who prefer to ignore our presumably worthy responsibilities, a good long list of food-related websites at which we can waste our time. If some of them actually help us with our work, consider it a happy accident (like stumbling across a really good restaurant on a road trip, something that happened to us TWICE recently -- once in Ontario, and again in Michigan).

Subscribers to our updates newsletter receive only these updates from our blog, Just Served, in their e-mailboxes. The rest of our little non-update screeds will still go into the blog, but they no longer intrude themselves in our subscribers' mailboxes.

For those rare individuals who receive these updates and might actually want to read more, we'll provide links to newly-added pieces here, in the update headnotes, such as:

"Yet Another Blog About Julie & Julia" is, needless to say, not about the movie (as is Dr Sanscravat's wont), but a reminiscence about Julia and -- oddly enough -- the eating habits of hippies.

Dr Sanscravat has published yet another of his rambling discourses on Just Served -- this one is called "Water, Cool, Cool Water." Clearly, the man spends way too much time in the past.

True gluttons for punishment should visit A Quiet Little Table in the Corner, a page that provides an ever-changing master index of any other web places that carry our stuff. It's hosted by Marty Martindale's Food Site of the Day, and you should check out some of the goodies she's got posted while you're there.

Here's this month's excerpt from On the Table's quotes pages:

"He that travels in theory has no inconveniences; he has shade and sunshine at his disposal, and wherever he alights finds tables of plenty and looks of gaiety. These ideas are indulged till the day of departure arrives, the chaise is called, and the progress of happiness begins. A few miles teach him the fallacies of imagination. The road is dusty, the air is sultry, the horses are sluggish. He longs for the time of dinner that he may eat and rest. The inn is crowded, his orders are neglected, and nothing remains but that he devour in haste what the cook has spoiled, and drive on in quest of better entertainment. He finds at night a more commodious house, but the best is always worse than he expected." Samuel Johnson
September, 2009

PS: If you encounter broken links, changed URLs -- or know of wonderful sites we've missed -- please drop us a line. It helps to keep this resource as useful as possible for all of us. To those of you who have suggested sites -- thanks, and keep them coming!

PPS: If you wish to change the e-mail address at which you receive these newsletters, or otherwise modify the way you receive our postings, go here

PPPS: If you've received this newsletter by mistake, and/or don't wish to receive future issues, you have our sincere apology and can have your e-mail address deleted from the list immediately. We're happy (and continuously amazed) that so few people have decided to leave the list -- but, should you choose to be one of them, let us know and we'll make sure that your in-box is never afflicted by these updates again. You can unsubscribe here.

PPPPS: Leitesculinaria has been redesigned -- and it still contains some of the best food writing and recipes around. So far, it contains only a few of our own articles -- but, eventually, they'll all be here.

----the new sites----

African Cooking and Food Bibliography
(yet another goodie from Cynthia Bertelsen's blog; just one of many useful culinary bibliographies on the site)

Bompas & Parr
(not your grandmother's Jell-O molds; and WAY beyond Jell-O shots

Candy Wrapper Museum, The
(Darlene Lacey's collection of confectionery memorabilia; classics, of course, but also rare -- and disturbing -- items like R. Crumb's "Devil Girl Hot Kisses" and "Devil Girl Choco-Bar"

(new user-created cookbook site from Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs)

Food: Bread, Beer, and All Good Things
(food and cooking of ancient Egypt)

Garlic War, The
(Annie Proulx's first published story

Herbs of Mexico Herb Name Reference Guide
(tri-lingual listing; botanical Latin, English and Spanish)

National Food Holiday Directory
(sometimes, a little silliness is just the hook an article needs; many "holiday" listings include a little background info on the food being celebrated)

Oyster Guide, The
(there are "at least two hundred unique oyster appellations," and this site includes maps of local varieties, plus descriptions)

Science and Pseudoscience in Adult Nutrition Research and Practice
(Dr. Reynold Spector muses about how we think about nutrition)

University of Gastronomic Sciences, The
(" international research and training center... founded by Slow Food;" in English and Italian)

Vanishing Youth Nutrient, The
(Susan Allport discusses Omega-3 vs Omega-6 in terms of seasonality, dietary sources, adaptive advantages and disadvantages of each, with examples of effects of -- and on -- several different species, and economic reasons for the overwhelming presence of Omega-6 in our food supply)

Vietnamese Pho Noodles
("Pho Noodle for the Pho Lovers" -- the dish, culture, etiquette, ingredients of the signature dish of Vietnam)

Wineries of North America
(contact information for all the wineries in Canada, Mexico, and the US)

----changed URLs----

Julie/Julia Project, The

Vanilla Garlic

----still more blogs----

African Agriculture


Eat Me Daily

Hamburger America

History of Greek Food

Kimberly Belle, Food Maven

Mediterranean Cooking with Clifford A. Wright

Viet World Kitchen

Water, Butter, Wine: Food as Allegory for Everything

----that's all for now----

Except, of course, for the usual legal mumbo-jumbo and commercial flim-flam:

Your privacy is important to us. We will not give, sell or share your e-mail address with anyone, for any purpose -- ever. Nonetheless, we will expose you to the following irredeemably brazen plugs:

Our books, The Resource Guide for Food Writers, The Herbalist in the Kitchen, The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food And Drink Industries, and Human Cuisine can be ordered through the Libro-Emporium.

Here endeth the sales pitch(es)...

...for the moment, anyway.

"The Resource Guide for Food Writers, Update #107" is protected by copyright, and is provided at no cost, for your personal use only. It may not be copied or retransmitted unless this notice remains affixed. Any other form of republication -- unless with the author's prior written permission -- is strictly prohibited.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Gary Allen.

Food Writing and Fish Ball Soup

Jacqueline M. Newman is our second guest blogger. In her essay, the plight of food writers and scholars is addressed (her article was written for a book on female food writers, but could just as easily apply to those of us afflicted with Y-chromosomes). We hope that some of her issues have been -- or soon will be -- resolved. Here follows her introduction:


Two years ago, I submitted the following article for inclusion in a book. It was accepted, and I never heard another word until today. What this tells me and should tell everyone is that there are still many problems when one follows one's love and wants to write about food.

What I submitted and updated below, to take into account the passage of time, would have appeared in a chapter titled: Good Friends. It was submitted and accepted with a recipe for Fish Ball Soup, one that many of my friends adore.

What happened is that the author needed to cut materials because the publisher wanted fewer words, and as is often the case, food items were tossed out first.

The event described below occurred about thirty years ago when my employer or big boss, the Dean of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at a large eastern university, put a 'reci-bee' in my bonnet. I had recently acquired my Ph.D. in what was then known as Home Economics and just joined the full-time faculty teaching food science and related courses.


"What is left for you to do beyond the food habits you studied?" he asked, referring to my dissertation. I had been one of the first to study what was eaten by a group of women in their native China comparing that to what these same Chinese immigrant women were eating in the U.S.

"You know that cooking Chinese food will not get you promotion and tenure on this campus," the dean challenged, "What else will you study about the Chinese?" Apparently, he felt food habits were of minimal importance and that I had said it all in my small study of one hundred two immigrant Chinese women. "Don't worry," I advised him, "I will find lots to research and publish." And I thought to myself, one day I will write and publish recipes by Chinese women.

The dean's remarks express the thoughts of many men about women who study food. He probably thought that 'women's work' -- cooking and eating -- were not worthy of academic attention.

His comments stuck in my craw. For years, I assiduously refrained from researching and publishing recipes and other things cookery. Enough time and much academic effort did secure my tenure and, eventually, I was promoted to Associate and then to full Professor, an academic person's goal.

When I finally was 'The Professor,' I felt free to explore. That is when I really thought about my interests, abilities, expertise, and my future in and after academe. I learned there was no English-language Chinese food journal loaded with history, culture, anthropology, sociology, and recipes. So I set out to write, edit, and publish one with a group of supporters who were willing to work for and bankroll my desire. Named Flavor and Fortune, the magazine began while still working for the same dean. I started planning it seventeen years ago. The first issue was published in 1994. This very magazine just sent the last issue of Volume 16 to the printer. My non-academic baby has grown in size and stature, spawned conferences, won awards, and it has a loyal subscriber base of individuals as well as academic and culinary institutions.

During my academic career, and after my retirement, I have spoken and written a lot about Chinese food. I published several monographs and more than a hundred research and trade papers. One book, my first, is titled Food Culture in China. It includes a few recipes to illustrate Chinese food history in ways often omitted because of experiences like mine with the dean. I inserted a handful of early dynastic recipes in the book's history chapter. I put another sampling, but of fancy recipes in the banquet chapter; and in the health chapter, are recipes the Chinese use for healing. Every chapter in that book ends with five or six related recipes.

Now retired from academe, the stick in my craw has healed. Last Spring, my first cookbook, Cooking from China's Fujian Province, was published about one specific Chinese provincial cuisine. Though little known to westerners, it is one of the eight most important provincial cuisines. It is known to the Chinese and to others who really know about Chinese food. Five important Chinese food experts have touted this book; their comments adorn its rear cover. They are: Martin Yan, host of Yan Can Cook, cookbook author and restauranteur; Ken Hom, BBC-TV presenter and a multi-cookbook author; Sidney Mintz, anthropologist and author of Sweetness and Power and dozens of other books and articles; E.N. Anderson, author of Food of China and dozens of articles about Chinese food; and Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.

May other women in academia and elsewhere never need to taste food put-downs and never need to avoid working with recipes. Recipes are the architecture of eating; they must be researched, recorded, and written about. Though food is respected more than ever today, studying it still has a long way to go to become totally respectable and accepted. Research about recipes expands the mind and fills the belly. I hope I can fill yours with one. Do take a good look at it so when you want to share a recipe, you do so in appropriate form.

The recipe below is about a Chinese soup. It helps to know that they are varied, and in no region is this more true than in the Fujian province. There they can be thin or thick, simple or complex, sweet or sour or piquant. Virtually every Fujianese meal has two or more soups, and banquets have many more than two; some are actually stews that have been thinned a mite with additional broth. In general, thinner soups are served earlier in Chinese meals, thicker ones in the middle, and sweeter ones closer to the end.

Fish Ball Soup

(to serve 8)

I first tasted Fish Ball Soup in a Fujianese restaurant in Flushing, NY. I was entranced by these fish balls which I had never seen in a cookbook. With the help of two Chinese women friends, one Fujianese, one Taiwanese, I worked out the recipe, devising the amounts.

This soup is fragrant and flavorful; and these days young folk purchase their fish balls frozen so they prepare this soup often. However, their parents made their fish balls from scratch and they did so immediately before serving this soup. That means that, in the past, this soup was reserved for special occasions; today, as it is easier to make, its use is not limited.


4 tsp. small dried shrimp*, soaked in warm water for one hour, then minced

1/2 lb. of two different fish such as dace, sea bass, red snapper, boned, then minced

1 scallion, green part only, minced

1 piece dried tangerine peel, 1 or 2 square inches, soaked until soft, then minced *

2 slices fresh ginger, minced

1/2 tsp. ground white pepper

1 Tbsp. water chestnut flour (cornstarch may be substituted) *

1 Tbsp. sesame oil

2 quarts chicken or fish stock, slightly warmed

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. cornstarch mixed with equal amount of cold water

* can be purchased at an Asian market


1. Mix shrimp, both fish meats, minced scallion, tangerine peel, ginger, and pepper. Stir in one direction until it becomes pasty, about five minutes.

2. Shape mixture into one-inch balls, and roll them in water chestnut flour or dust with flour.
Heat sesame oil in heat-proof ceramic casserole on medium heat, then fry fish balls for one minute.

3. Add stock slowly, then salt, and bring to just below a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for two minutes before increasing temperature, adding cornstarch solution, and stirring for one minute until thickened.

A fancier and older Fujianese version would add half pound of finely minced or ground beef, made into small meat balls. Then follow step two, shaping the fish around the meatballs -- making the finished fish balls with cores of meat, one inch in diameter, then roll them in water chestnut flour and continue with the recipe as written.

Water, Cool Cool Water

Recently, Leena Trivedi's blog discussed the recapture of part of her Gujarati heritage by taking a cooking lesson from Lila Khaki (her aunt).

Like dipping the oft-cited Madeleine into Linden Tea, her story triggered memories of my own childhood.

One wouldn't think that we had much in common (she being young and nicely brown, while I am old and sickly white), aside from our unnaturally strong affection for food, but there it was: " soon as I drank some pani (water) from that stainless steel cup, it reminded me of visiting my relatives while growing up."

My cousins (Truly, Twila & Tina) used to live on a small peanut farm outside of Cisco, Texas. When I visited them, as a child, it was like stepping into a virtual museum of old-time rural America -- not that I would have thought it at the time.

Back home we had a black telephone, with no dial -- you just picked it up and told the operator what number you wanted. If it was long distance (to Texas for instance) the operator would take down the info and keep trying until a line became available, then call us when the connection was established -- sometimes ten or fifteen minutes later. Then folks on both ends of the conversation would have to yell to be heard over the intervening hiss and crackle of 2000 miles of wire. Truly's phone was made of wood, attached to the wall near the back door, with a crank-handle on the side. Like our Yankee phone, it didn't have a dial either. If you wanted to make a call, you just held the earphone to the side of your head, leaned into the black mouthpiece sticking out of the front of the wooden box, and gave the handle a good crank. When the operator answered, you said something along the lines of, "Morning, Velma... can you try Billy Bob for me, not the one in town, the one over t'other side of the lake?" Today, we don't remember numbers because they're all filed away in our cell phones. Back then, in rural Texas, folks didn't need to remember numbers either -- operators took care of that.

Needless to say, this story doesn't have much to do with the history of telephony. That little digression was just to set the mood, and possibly distract you long enough so that you will have forgotten where this is supposed to be going.

I know it worked for me.

Despite the Texan heat, there was no air conditioning. No big deal, there wasn't much air conditioning, up north, in the early fifties either. Truly's house was airy, because every window was open, allowing the ever-present wind to flow through. There was, however, no flowing water in the house. Water was carried in from a cast-iron hand pump in the back yard. Some of that water was left in a large black enamel-ware pot next to the telephone (see? there was a reason for all that palaver after all).

Hanging inside that pot was a steel ladle, from which everyone would take a cooling drink as they came in from the scorching heat. That water always tasted of steel, a kind of galvanic flavor that was unforgettable. Today, like Leena, one sip of water from a stainless steel cup transports me instantly to my past, to childhood memories of places that ceased to exist ages ago.


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