You know it has happened to you. A friend, a native of a certain area, goes on and on and on about the fantastic whatever served at a long-standing locally owned restaurant. And by long-standing, I mean a place they visited as children with their families.
When you finally go, order the famous whatever, and take your first bite, you are instantly puzzled. You take another bite, then another and you watch your friend’s eager face as you mentally scramble around in your head for a polite answer to “Isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever had?”
Because, nine times out of ten, the answer is “No.”
You briefly think they are playing a joke on you, getting you to eat something so bland, or weird or just wrong, just so they can laugh at your discomfort. But, nine times out of ten, you’d be wrong about that.
What you are experiencing is trying to taste someone else’s nostalgia. That’s like trying to get inside someone’s dreams. Not going to happen. And face it, we have all been on the nostalgic end of this scenario, as well.
The link between food and memory is so strong it can warp reality. It can make a grown man weepy over a soggy barbeque sandwich. Strong women get misty-eyed over vinegar-soaked tomatoes and onions served on toasted white bread. And you just nod and appreciate their walk down memory lane, because you have been there.
You remember feeling safe and excited, crammed into the family car for a vacation, which always included a stop at a family eatery chain. You gulped down exotic hot clam strips, followed by decadent peppermint ice cream, and the bickering and resentments stopped for a while – at least until you got back in the car.
But years later, if you took a friend to that place and ordered the same thing, you’d see that look come across their face as they tried to chew the rubbery clams and deal with the gumminess of the ice cream. To you it would still taste divine, flavored with memories and seasoned with wistfulness.
Memory food is not limited to restaurant fare. The other day, some friends were discussing childhood favorites that seem inedible now. As adults, we taste the chemicals in the processed food that we loved to see spilling out of our lunch bags in days of yore. We blanch at the dishes our parents or grandparents sometimes threw together – the salmon cakes, fish sticks, and canned pears stuffed with cottage cheese.
Then everyone got a little choked up thinking about their favorite dish that they would move mountains to taste one more time – grandma’s baked spaghetti, dad’s beef liver and onions, granny’s pickles. The people may be gone, other people have long lived in their homes, but they still exist is photos and memories and recipes.
So, I’m going to share my mother’s recipe for corn pudding. Because it still tastes as fantastic today as it did when I was a kid. People at potlucks eat every last bite, and ask for the instructions. And that can’t all be about nostalgia, or maybe it can. Either way, I bet you won’t get that puzzled look on your face after the first bite.
3 cups corn, cut fresh off the cob or frozen
3 Tbsp. butter, melted
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk, brought to room temperature
1 Tbsp. sugar
3 eggs, well beaten
a pinch of nutmeg
1 Tbsp. corn starch (optional, see below)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×13 casserole dish.
If you are using frozen corn, add the 1 Tbsp. of corn starch along with the corn.
Mix the corn, butter, salt, milk and sugar in a large bowl. Fold in the beaten eggs and pour the mix into the casserole. Bake uncovered 50-60 minutes until the custard has set.