My default vanilla was established in a subterranean ice cream shop in the former Soviet Union, where my parents took me after I had my ears pierced. I was three years old and while I don’t recall the actual needle stabbing in my ear, the intense sweet vanilla lodged itself as the standard by which all future vanillas will have to measure against. Maybe in the wake of a traumatic event, your taste buds become hyper sensitive and tastes become saturated. Or else maybe your brain just remembers them that way.
It’s my only sensorial memory from the Soviet Union. Where did the others go? I was almost five years old when we landed at JFK Airport and the only stories I can recount are those which were told to me, using photographs as triggers, convincing me of the life I had. Like an amnesiac I grip faded photographs trying hard to recall a memory frozen in time. How is it possible to loose all of your childhood memories without any biological trauma?
That Russian vanilla feels nostalgic even though I can’t close my eyes tight enough to create a visual of the actual ear piercing that happened before the ice cream. I only remember the sweet reward and its lasting connection to childhood.
When I was a teenager, more social experiences occurred around food and those memories seem to float up with certain flavors. Platters of nachos covered in a brick of cheddar cheese invoke comforting memories at my best friend’s house, a welcome reprieve from a shitty high school experience I’ve otherwise forgotten.
My father bought a donut shop in Staten Island and on the four occasions we visited it before we moved, I got an egg bagel with cream cheese and a Hershey’s chocolate milk. In those visits, I sat around a horseshoe counter imagining how successful my father will be, how different our lives will become. That breakfast combination tasted like American dreams and after we moved to Staten Island and I began working at the donut shop regularly, much to my chagrin, I never had this breakfast combination again. We replaced egg bagels with egg-everything ones and switched from Hershey’s to Nestle’s chocolate milk. I could never replicate that taste of original promise; only a fake replica.
Through those years at the donut shop, where I was also the short order cook for the 3pm-11pm shift, I helped combine many flavors to define my adolescence. Ham sandwiches on kaiser rolls with pickles on them, bacon, egg and cheese on a roll, raw cookie dough, chocolate-covered donuts with sprinkles on them. It was a shit show of unhealthy, quick comfort foods which I made with love for our customers and then happily devoured myself. I was 40 pounds overweight in high school and before I left for college, I made sure to leave the donut shop with its artery-blocking grub, and those extra pounds behind on Staten Island.
In college, frozen yogurt was the hip diet trend craze. There was a small cafe we frequented on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. There I created a custom-blended frozen yogurt masterpiece. For freshman year only, thanks to my college roommate who convinced me of its deliciousness, my combination was “chocolate base with mint chip and grape nuts.” I had never had the gritty cereal before but somehow the sand-like crunch became addictive but when I transferred away from Boston, I left the pseudo-healthy gravel ice cream with it.
I moved to NYU where veggie burgers and carrot-ginger dressing were all the rage at DoJo Restaurant. In New York dozens of cuisines serve as the backdrop for my flavor memories, but to this day when I drive by West 4th Street, I think about that DoJo dressing.
I realize this is why I go back to familiar restaurants. We live in a city with about 24,000 restaurants; I can go to a different restaurant every day FOR OVER 65 YEARS without trying the same one twice. My husband and I laugh at ourselves; how ridiculous of us to continue to go to the same places over and over when there are literally thousands of other choices. We go for the flavor memories, for the nostalgia, for the same reason listening to a favorite song over and over elicits joy and excitement. Flavors are the spice to our lives, unlocking time capsules even photographs cannot unleash.