There's another flavor beyond salty, sweet, sour, and bitter and, no, I'm not talking about umami. I'm talking about memory. I'm writing this from the bed I've had since I was in kindergarten. It's a lot lumpier now and there are stains on it that I don't recognize (and will try my best not to think about too much), but it's the same bed that's followed me from elementary school to middle school to high school. It's not great, but it's mine and that's all too important for a middle child like me.
I'm in Chicago visiting my family, which means I'm eating more than I usually eat in a month. I love my hometown, even if I'm really from the suburbs, and take pride in being a fourth-generation Chicagoan. There's something about the city that sticks with you and in my case, it's about 4,000 calories a day. Visits back here are structured around an eating schedule. Every time I come home, I'm confronted with a dilemma: do I try the latest and greatest or do I stick to my old favorites?
The classics almost always win out. These are the places that that made me love food in the first place. If a home-cooked meal is offered, I definitely take that over anything else; otherwise I opt for my favorite restaurants still standing a decade after I packed up my grandma's old Pontiac Grand Am and headed to Los Angeles.
About an hour after landing, my dad and I took up seats around a hibachi table at Tsukasa, a teppanyaki restaurant we've been going to for most birthdays and celebrations, always ending with a candle-topped pineapple wedge and Japanese song with synchronized clapping and a massive heap of embarrassment. My parents were such good customers back in the day that around Christmas, the owners would give them a bottle of plum wine as a gift. Now the restaurant has moved and quadrupled in size. So have I.
I wasn't an adventurous eater growing up: chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, pizza, fettuccine alfredo — you know. In those days, I ordered Tsukasa's chicken teriyaki. Now, I get the filet mignon and golden shrimp plate because I'm sophisticated. Golden shrimp? You don't know it. Nobody does, not even big deal Chicago food writers, unless they grew up in the northern Chicago suburbs. It's a steamed egg/mayo emulsification that tastes like cholesterol incarnate and by that I mean it's unbearably delicious.
As our chef put on a half-hearted show (“Look! Onion train! Choo choo!”), I saw people around me taking photos and was transported back to sixth grade when a classmate and I did a project on Japanese food and brought over my dad's enormous JVC camcorder. I remember our squeaky prepubescent voices trying to explain how incredible it was that they cook right in front of you. A few minutes later, we heard that birthday song unleashed on another table.
The next day of my trip home, I met more family at a North Shore deli called Max & Benny's. Sunday brunches with the Kesslers were a regular occurrence growing up and living in LA now leaves me wistful for those big, raucous meals. Now that I was enjoying one again, it was hard not to appreciate it from an outsider's perspective. I sat in the middle of a long table filled with people who kinda look like me and share the same snarky sense of humor. We ate bagels and lox and complained about things. It was wonderful, but was I enjoying it authentically or just enjoying a return to a memory? Did it even matter?
Maybe that's the downside about eating nostalgically. They say you can never go home again and that's true with meals. You can never eat the same meal twice – sure, you can order the same thing, but at the end of the day, every detail will be different. Memory is tricky — it magnifies sensations in retrospect. That's why dinner at Hackney's, an old-school burger joint that found its way into the pantheon of restaurants that Guy Fieri visited, felt lacking.
I was eating with my mom and brother, and the burgers and huge bricks of onion straws shaped like a deep-fryer basket were great. What was missing was another kind of fullness: we always went there with my dad and sister and grandparents, too. In my memory, my grandfather is asking about school, my grandmother is stealing fries and I'm trying to borrow a quarter so I can slip off and play Super Off-Road in the arcade. Without that whole scenario, Hackney's devolves into just another good burger restaurant.
Last night, my mom took us out for a birthday dinner at Big Jones, a Southern restaurant I had never been to before. Over fried chicken and shrimp and grits, we talked about the worthlessness of dollar coins, joked and steered my mom away from making it slightly depressing with talk of bodily aches. By the end of the meal, I was full and happy and so was everyone else. I know for a fact that I'll remember that meal even though it was a totally fresh experience.
The Girl Scouts have that song about making new friends and keeping the old and recognizing that both are valuable (although not equally so because the price of gold has skyrocketed in relation to silver), but I prefer to think of that idea in terms of meals: eat at new places, but keep the old. That's the beauty of memory: it's limitless and continually evolving. I don't have to worry about choosing between the old favorites or new spots because they'll all deposit into the same memory bank. So what does memory taste like? For me, teriyaki sauce and lox, onion straws shaped like a deep-fryer basket and now, shrimp and grits. Memory tastes like home and that means home comes with me even when I'm not on this lumpy old bed.
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