Food and Memory

Remember that scene in Ratatouille when the ruthless restaurant critic Anton Ego takes a bite of Remi’s ratatouille and is instantly whooshed back to his mother’s country kitchen? His normally severe face melts into a kind of euphoria, and he drops his pen in the shock of recognition, in the transportive power of food. (As if to say, the feeling he gets from eating this dish is purely visceral, purely nostalgic…and no intellectual deconstruction of the meal can capture it the same way.) I have so many of those foods. My mom’s garlicky breadcrumbed zucchini. Her lasagna. The Nutter Butters that made the whole pantry smell like peanut butter. And not that I eat Creamsicles very regularly, but when I do, I am beamed right back to the town beach where I spent most of my early years, breathing air that’s been infused with saltwater from the Long Island Sound and the slightly rotten wood of the locker room. Which is to say, I’m beamed right back to a place of deep happiness.

There’s a chapter on “signature dinners” in my How to Celebrate Everything that’s all about capturing this magic, and I thought I’d throw it out there to you. If you had to answer the question you see in the above photo, what would it be? How do you think your kids would answer?

How to Celebrate is out TOMORROW, September 20, and is available from all the usual suspects: AmazonBarnes & NobleiBooks, and Indiebound.

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31 Comments

Lisa C

Not a meal but my grandmother and I used to make chocolate chip cookies and then we would split a coke, eat some cookies and watch Jeopardy. Sometimes when I’m eating a chocolate chip cookie I get the strongest desire for a coke!

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Jenny

I love that. I’m not a huge soda proponent, but I def think you need to give in to that desire every now and then. :)

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J

Funny, over the weekend, I bought a basically unremarkable loaf of olive bread from the farmers market, for no particular reason. Biting into it was an instant flash to early childhood. It took me a few minutes to remember why – until I was maybe, 10 or so, there was an Italian deli my parents frequented that sold olive bread. We didn’t buy it much after the place closed, and it never would have occurred to me to name as a “signature dinner” but that emotional reaction was huge!

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Leah

My mother is a terrible cook, but she made us sit down to Friday night dinner every week, complete with candle sticks, matzo ball soup from the box, and a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, and challah + cupcakes from the local bakery, It wasn’t delicious, but it is happily seared in my memory. Just this past Friday night, I put out a similarly prepapared meal — chocolate chip cookies instead of cupcakes — and watched my toddler’s eyes light up in joy!

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Jenny

I love this — I should’ve mentioned in the post that the signature dinner doesn’t even have to be homemade to evoke that kind of emotional response. And btw, my dad brought home a challah from the local bakery every Friday night when i was younger. It was the highlight of my week — especially when there were golden raisins in it. Thanks for writing.

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Allyson

I don’t have any kids of my own yet, and I’m not sure yet which food traditions I’m going to pass on to them. But I’ve had plenty of Ratatouille moments of my own. Every time I make popcorn for a late night snack I remember my dad at the stove, using a very specific pot to make an enormous bowl of popcorn that the two of us would split. Fall Sundays aren’t the same without a pot of chili to be eaten while watching football. And once, while eating an elegant apple and grape dessert at a high end restaurant I took a bite and was instantly taken back to being a kid, helping my mom make apple brown betty. It’s the magic of food that it holds such power and such nostalgia.

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Meg

For my kids, I’m pretty sure it’s chicken pot pie all the way. And “grandpa cookies” – oatmeal chocolate chip cookies my dad has made his signature way since I was little (and even had at my wedding!)…I’m only just now beginning to master replication, but still, no one makes them like my dad.
For me, popcorn with nutritional yeast…my brother walked in my kitchen last week as I was finishing a batch and he immediately pounced on it as just like my mom used to make us (and sneaked into the movie theater)….passing that one down too.

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Awads

I am always telling my son (9) “THIS will be the meal you’ll beg me to make when you come home from college.” It’s like a running joke anytime i pull off something delicious (usually from DALS)! I think my son will one day request my meatballs, pasta con ceci, garlicky grilled chicken thighs, among other favorites. My copy of HTCE should arrive tomorrow! Can’t wait!

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Jenny

ha. you sound like me! So happy you pre-ordered @awads! thanks for all your support over the years!

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Marisa

I’ve been trying to nail that signature family dish for years! One of my friends asked my 7 year old daughter “What is your favorite thing that your mom cooks?” And she answered “Mini pizzas – the kind you cook in the microwave.” Guess I need to step up my game!

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VA Lawyer

I made Cheeseburger Pie (the recipe off the back of an old Bisquik box that is photocopied into my recipe binder) just last week for my husband for the first time. The first bite took me straight back to childhood. Without those memories, my husband managed one slice and then had a clif bar for dinner, but it was a staple on our table growing up (mom didn’t cook much then). My sisters feel the same way. When I go back to Mom’s and she’s willing to cook, my special request is always porcupine meatballs smothered in spaghetti sauce (Hunt’s in a can) and served over Barilla spaghetti – imagine my surprise seeing the reference to porcupine meatballs in your cookbook when I had never met anyone I told about it who reacted with anything other than “ew…porcupine?!?!”.

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Kathryn Chavez

I ordered my book weeks ago and love watching amazon update me about it’s arrival. Food is my everything! Currently figuring out how to make a cake over a campfire for my son’s fourth birthday this weekend where he asked to go dig in the dirt and play in the water. I can’t wait.

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kate s

We are on Day 1 of a kitchen renovation!!!! My youngest son asked me last night what I would cook for our first meal when the kitchen is finished. It didn’t take me long to answer “a roast chicken dinner”. I grew up in the UK with a traditional Sunday lunch. Although I now make it for Sunday dinner, we often roast a chicken, make the sage and onion stuffing, roast the potatoes and make the gravy. Its a family favorite that I make for my older two when they come home from college.

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molly

I think my kiddos would say nachos ;) We keep it really simple with our favorite canned beans covered with shredded cheese (plus olives + jalapeños on half for mom + dad, as well as sour cream + hot sauce after a minute under the broiler), and we eat them fairly often. But every time one of my munchkins asks what’s for dinner and I reply “nachos!” they honestly shout with joy! So simple. So tasty. So fun. And it can grow with us they get older and want more flavors on top… win-win-win xoxo

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Jenny

I love that @molly. There’s a recipe for nachos with stewed chicken in HTCE. It’s a tradition in our house to eat them in front of the TV on nights when something big is happening that we NEED to watch.

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Nancy LaRoche

In my family, I think the meal that threads our generations together is make your own tacos. Always simple and quick to whip up, and endlessly customizable for every palate. I loved them as a kid, and love making them now for my kids – and the more dinner guests, the merrier!

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Barb

Have read all the comments and could picture so easily each of your stories. Funny how food stories read just like good novels: so evocative. Among mine are: at Thanksgiving my mother always made strawberry jello fortified with frozen, sweetened strawberries. She’d let a layer gel in a cut glass bowl and, when set, cover it with sour cream, then another layer of not-yet-set jello. The super sweetness of the jello was cut by the sour cream, mighty tasty really.
And, we were a big family with little money. Meat portions were tiny. One Sunday, my mom pulled out of the oven a 2.5 lb pork roast (all garlicky and fatty, just heaven) to feed six, just as my brother walked in with his 6’3″, 250lb friend, who was to join us for dinner. Now seven must eat from this tiny roast. Five faces fell. My mother, a sweet and gentle person, welcomed the guest, gave him a bigger portion than any of us saw (which isn’t saying much but still), and put a loaf of white bread and margarine in the center of the table. We never went hungry, but whenever I do a pork roast now I treat myself to a generous crusty end piece and am grateful for plenty.

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Wendy

I love this question! My first memory is one that must make any food writer cringe, spaghetti o’s & meatballs served by my assembly line working maternal grandmother. The other from my paternal grandmother, mashed potatoes with creamed corn & an egg, she thought I was too thin. Memories of my mother’s cooking always go to sweets, the cool birthday cakes she would make and pumpkin cookies. And my mom & I still like to share a box of mallomars. I think my own children would say my chili or homemade pizza. Or maybe memories of the times we had breakfast for dinner.

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Blythe

Eating one of those strawberry shortcake bars (like from a gas station or vending machine) transports me back to being 7-years-old and going with my grandpa to the gas station to get gas in the Florida Keys. He’d always get me an afternoon treat. My parents wondered why I was always so concerned with getting gas. He passed when I was 10 (cancer sucks) and to this day (I’m 28 now) eating one of those – which happens rarely – transports me back to riding shotgun in his truck, with the windows down, in sunny Marathon.

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Kristin

Most of the stuff I loved as a kid is revolting to me now (Velveeta sandwiches on white bread, Kraft mac, cream soup casseroles, anything with ground beef, etc.) But I do get nostalgic about the breakfasts my grandmother used to make me: the fluffiest scrambled eggs, bacon, toast with homemade jam, and chocolate milk. Not sure what meals my daughter will remember fondly. Definitely not the tofu!

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Blythe

Also! Coco Wheats was our favorite breakfast as kids! My mom would make it on the weekend or on special occasions.

My dad traveled a lot during the work week, so when we were young, family dinners were a big deal. We’d light candles, turn out the lights, everyone (usually just I) would dress up and we’d play the “Manners Game.” We’d all start out with 100 points and you’d get points deducted for chewing with your mouth open or interrupting someone or putting your elbows on the table. We worked on our maths skills and it made learning manners fun! It was never a fancy meal, usually just spaghetti or something easy, but my friends always wanted to come and dine by candlelight.

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MKH

Homemade spaghetti and meatballs! My dad whirling the pasta dough in the food processor, rolling out the sheets of pasta, and cutting noodles while the sauce and meatballs bubbled on the stove. What I wouldn’t give for a chance to make it with him again.

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Kath the Cook

So many. Thanksgivings for one, so good – giblet gravy and that first turkey sandwich with heated up dressing and gravy. My dad buying me Zero bars at baseball games. Grilled leg of lamb. Coconut cakes shaped like bunny heads my mom would make for Easter – you cut it all out of round cakes and the bunny has a bow tie – decorated with jelly beans and licorice. Barbequed chicken and baked frozen coconut custard pie after Saturday evening Mass – watching
‘All in the Family’. Cheetos and coke ‘tea parties’. Fried chicken. Gumbo. My mom was a terrific cook. Good times…

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JJ Horner

I bought 2 copies of your book – 1 for me and 1 for a girlfriend – and I’ll pick them up tomorrow from my favorite local bookstore (Third Place Books in Seattle). Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for reminding us that there are so many ways to celebrate everything (and so many things to celebrate!)

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Diana

My kids will remember taco nights. We have a vegan kid, a picky kid, a dad who tries not to eat too many carbs, a mom who is calorie conscious. It could drive you mad. But on taco nights, we set out bowls of many good things and each construct our perfect dinner while dishing about teachers or obsessing about Stranger Things. Also, on busy days when we’ve gone out of town for a hike or fruit-picking or swimming and had a late lunch, we just have enormous bowls of popcorn and smoothies for dinner. That’s definitely a favorite ritual. Good question! I enjoyed all the answers.

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Leslie

So excited to get the book and it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. With all of the focus on gluten-free, carb-free, sugar-free, non-dairy, paleo, raw, etc… we’ve lost the joy of preparing and eating food. It’s become a point of stress in so many of our lives because we are striving to fix the “perfect” food and not eat certain foods for fear of some massive health issue (and please don’t get me wrong I am not referring to the severe allergies or celiac’s disease, I am just talking about the paranoia over food in general). We’ve become scared to eat and enjoy food and this makes me so sad. I am reminded that I need to get back in the kitchen and fix something that inspires me, that makes me happy, and something that I can share with my family. Thank you for the reminder!

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Anna

My mom is a wonderful cook, and her spaghetti and meatballs is one of my favorite comfort foods that brings me straight back to childhood. I’m trying to learn to make it (I’m a good cook myself, but I can’t get it to taste exactly like hers and I assume I never will). When she visits us she makes and freezes a huge batch and I can already tell that it’s going to be one of Those Meals for my 5-year old son. Maybe it’s a bonus for him that it will remind him of both his mom’s kitchen and his grandmother’s.

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Ronda

I love this as it is so true! For me one of our signature meals that always take me back is spaghetti for an army – just like baked ziti but with spaghetti. We always had it when guests came over and it was always and still is requested for holidays and birthday dinners.
Also, whenever my dad made dinner it became a running joke because he always made cubed steak, mashed potatoes and green beans with ice cream sundaes for dessert. We always knew what the meal was going to be but it is still one of my favorites and one I always make as soon as the weather gets cold.
But it is true, mashed potatoes always take me back to the fun days of dad’s dinners.

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Shell

I loved my mom’s fried chicken when I was growing up. Not made in a deep fryer with heavy breading but In an electric skillet, a square one that was always plugged in at the ready beside the stove. The chicken was the cut up pieces, bone in, skin on, of course. No one cooked boneless skinless breasts back then!
I also remember fondly the meals at my paternal grandmother’s house: often a beef roast, cooked to a crispy char on the outside, served with mashed potatoes, and my favorite, a green salad with tiny bay shrimp ( they lived near the Oregon coast). I’ve tried to recreate that salad but can’t get it just right. I think she used just chopped iceberg lettuce, diced, tomato, topped with about a cup of fresh chilled bay shrimp. The dressing she would whip up in a little bowl with a fork: Mayonaise, a teaspoon of sugar, a little water & whip together. Pour on salad, toss, then sprinkle with salt and black pepper!

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