Basil and oregano. Cinnamon. Chicken soup. Carne asada.
School cafeteria chicken nuggets. Cheap food fried in cheap cooking oil. Bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches served with a glass of lukewarm, poorly-mixed Kool-Aid.
The smells of certain dishes evoke feelings in most people. There are foods which spark memories of home and family, of holidays and picnics, of poverty, disasters and grief.
There are a few of us, however, who lack the gene that connects food and emotion. I have no strong feelings about food, not enough to figure out what a shallot is or how to zest a lemon, anyway. Left to my own devices, I could happily live on cheese, coffee, and grapes, with an occasional foray into sushi.
I observe with envy those who approach food with knowledge and enthusiasm. My neighbor describes food with glee. He gushes enthusiastically about the tacos de lengua he ate at a corner taco stand, making chopping motions as he describes the diced cow tongue and pantomiming liberally spooning salsa on said taco, until I begin to crave tacos. It’s clear he is excited about good food, and his joy is contagious.
Food writers provoke the same emotion. When they write about perfectly crispy duck skin, or cool cucumber-yogurt-mint dip, I can almost feel the texture on my tongue. While I’d never run to the store to buy ingredients and make this dip, I might fervently wish the dip fairy would bring them to me. I don’t care enough about the outcome to do more than salivate as I listen or read.
I’m essentially an obedietarian – I eat whatever I’m served. The path of least resistance is the most appealing path, food-wise. This means I’ve eaten iguana, frog, snake, and rabbit, not because I’m adventurous, but because people have placed plates of them in front of me and it was more work to say no than to eat. I’ve downed more corn tortillas than I’d care to count, even as I don’t particularly care for corn tortillas. I’m the garbage disposal mom who traditionally finished off the food my children left behind on their plates, where I was hungry or whether I liked it or not, just to avoid throwing it in the trash. For years, I shared an order of whatever my children wanted in restaurants, knowing that neither one of us could finish a whole order. If they wanted pancakes, I ate half an order of pancakes.
If they wanted eggs, I smothered my half of the order in salsa, knowing that would make eggs palatable.
It stands to reason that I’m not an inspired cook. I’m dismayed that my family wants dinner every single night, and rack my brains to come up with meals that are simple, inexpensive, and at least palatable. If they could just be content with sandwiches, salad, and cereal, all of our lives would be so much simpler. Instead, I make valiant, if distracted, efforts to cook. I burn things, overseason them, mix the wrong flavors together. No one has starved to death so far, but I’m sure there are moments they wish they had. Once a week, I give in and buy five-dollar pizzas, knowing this way my children will fill their bellies with something they like.
As my children morph into young adults—although I’m a few years away from empty-nest syndrome—I find myself with empty kitchen syndrome. They make their own food, eat with friends, or choose to survive on Pizza Pockets punctuated by actual pizzas. I am frequently on my own for both meals and grocery shopping. I’m adrift on the culinary ocean, not knowing what to buy.
I stand in the grocery store, confused. Wandering the aisles, I make a negative grocery list. I no longer have to buy squeezable pouches of applesauce, brightly-colored yogurt with attached containers of sprinkles to mix in, canned ravioli, or cereal boxes adorned with cartoon characters.
I gravitate toward the cheese aisle, but then remember the admonishment of my doctor, who insists on pesky health advice such as “Eat less cheese.” I reject eggs and corn tortillas, trade ground beef for ground turkey, put three different colors of grapes in my cart. As a concession for the kids, who don’t always fend for themselves, I buy ingredients for meals that involve actual recipes.
As a last-ditch effort to instill the food-appreciation gene in my children, I grab basil and oregano, and a tiny canister of cinnamon, hoping to find ways to use them that, years from now will provoke my children to reminisce, “My mom’s kitchen smelled like that!”
It’s far more likely that they’ll look back, hopefully sympathetically, and say, “The kitchen smelled like cheese.”