when memories fail me

What do you remember?

For me, the answer is almost, "Too much." Not in a bad way, but sometimes in an overwhelming way.

I don't typically think of myself as the type of person who is constantly noticing all the little things around herself. In fact, at this point in my life, it's something I have to be mindful of and remind myself to do, as I'm liable to plow headfirst through my days, barely coming up to breathe. But whenever I'm flooded with memories, spontaneously or of my own calling-up, I'm struck by how much detail is in them.

One whiff of new blacktop and I'm suddenly a child at my grandparents' house on a hot summer day. I can feel the smooth, warm black tar of the driveway under my bare feet as I rush past the old rose bush with its gigantic pale pink flowers scattering soft-as-silk petals everywhere, towards the brick steps leading to the sun porch door, the steps against which I will almost certainly scrape my shin. I can still feel their uneven, ragged roughness, the little troughs the grout lines make between each brick. The storm door's handle is cool, black metal, the push button to open it always sticks. And there's a smell, and a certain feeling surrounding the house, unique to it, almost like it has its own atmosphere, literally and in a more ambiance-like sense, too. And when a memory like this hits me, I'm shocked at how easily I can slip back into the Me that was there - all my grown-up thoughts and feelings slip away, my mood shifts, and I AM that person again. I feel, in the truest and most real sense of the word, that I am back to being a child visiting my grandparents in the summer without a care in the world.

And then it's gone. But for the moment or two that it lasted, it was lovely. Lovely to remember it all, and lovely to know that I still harbor that aware, carefree little person inside myself. And that my childhood is so easily within reach.

And yet . . . this happens all the time. With everything, not just important, nostalgic things that I really want to relive. Is this just the way it is? Does everyone hear an old song on the radio, and immediately they can feel their fingernails dragging across the faint, uneven lines and creases stretching out across the back of the school bus seat in front of them, as the bus bumps over the rutted country roads, each jolt banging their temple against the metal frame of the window they're leaning on, while several rows back the popular kids sing along to that very same song blasting out of an older boy's boom box? Does your memory work like this?

Sometimes, when it seems like I can remember practically everything from my past, it's difficult to sort through it all when I'm looking for a particular memory, one that hasn't been spontaneously triggered for me. This happened today. A brief visit to Twitter brought to my attention the existence of a group of food bloggers getting ready to post essays on the first food they ever cooked. I wanted in, but couldn't seem to meet the only requirement: I couldn't for the life of me remember the first thing I ever cooked! I'm sure the memory is there somewhere, but goodness, it's buried down deep!

I can remember hand-cranking ice cream with my dad in the summer, layering the chunks of ice and dirty gray rock salt around the ice cream canister. I remember kneading and shaping bread beside my mom, with my own miniature aluminum bread pans to make my own kid-sized loaves. Rolling out gingerbread men at Christmastime, applying their raisin eyes and buttons. Picking the wild strawberries that grew along the path leading to my swing set, and using a fork to mush them up; I got just enough "jam" for that day's sandwich. Being at my mother's elbow every time she was baking something sweet, and always, always asking to first smell, then taste, the vanilla extract; I just couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that something so amazingly-scented would not taste just as sweet. Mixing up the apple and carrot "dip" (just natural peanut butter, honey, and plain yogurt) that I loved to make when it was my turn to bring a snack to preschool. I've still got my very first apron, personalized and with a bunny hand-painted on it, and my own kids take turns wearing it in the kitchen now.

If my memories tell me anything, it's that I was always in the kitchen, always up on a chair helping stir or pour or taste. This is wonderful. It also means that I can't find The Day, the one where I first cooked/baked/made something completely by myself. The transition, apparently, from helper to flying solo was so seamless, so natural, that it didn't make that big of an impression on me!

I do, however, remember certain baking landmarks, ones that came later. Deciding to make eclairs from scratch, with real pastry cream and pate choux. I didn't have a pastry bag (and didn't know the ziplock bag trick), so I just used a spoon to shape the lines of batter on my cookie sheet. I was pleasantly surprised when, despite their irregular appearance, the eclairs tasted just as good as I had imagined! And another moment of awe: swirling granulated sugar around in a cast iron pan, waiting for it to do the surely-impossible: melt into liquid gold. I even had an exasperated conversation about it with my dad at the stove, about how the recipe must be mistaken or I was doing something wrong, because there was no way that all this gritty sugar was going to simply heat up and turn into caramel! Until, suddenly, it did. And it was perfect, and I began to believe in a new kind of magic. These early experiences in my parent's kitchen, all before I hit high school, certainly paved the way for the pastry career I would find myself pursuing many years later.

So, you see, I know how it all began, I just can't quite say when it all began. Which means that there's a certain taken-for-granted quality in my personal history, and a tendency to forget just how lucky I am to have spent my life in the kitchen, making good things happen. Fortunately, though, it seems unlikely that I will soon forget many of the details of this sweet life! So there's hope that I may yet unearth that first-cooked memory . . .

Until then, I'll leave you with an image of my first successful caught food. Too bad I didn't cook and eat it!


  1. I love how you mention how a smell can pull you right in to a moment in your past! This is so true for me as well. I am having so much fun reading everyone's #firstthingicooked posts! Thanks for sharing these wonderful memories ;0)

  2. This was an AMAZING post. You were utterly adorable as a child, and the way you described certain things (the smell of the hot blacktop, the rough ragged brick steps and the making of the ice cream is SO vivid. I loved it and totally related. Smells, sounds, even the humidity of the night can trigger memories for me.

    I can SO related to the making of the caramel as well. The first time I made caramel, I thought to myself "this recipe CLEARLY is wrong. There's no way it's suppose to take this long" and then, magically, it melted and transformed....

    And I think it's amazing that you DON'T have a memory of the first thing you cooked. You've ALWAYS been around food, making food, living with food. You are lucky and blessed.

  3. Thanks, you two, :) It was fun to write, pulling up all these memories that I haven't thought about in ages. And the more I think about how we've all got these personal memory triggers, which seem to go off all the time, the more amused I get. It's like, on the outside we're walking around, doing our jobs, looking like normal, functioning adults, but the reality is that inwardly, half the time we're drifting away on some nostalgic trip! I don't know why I find that funny, but there you go. ;)

  4. Mmmmm - your writing is just so lovely and what I find interesting about this particular piece, is that even though I wasn't in the kitchen w/mother, grandmother, etc., I DO remember the very first thing I ever cooked - choco chip cookies. Choco chip cookies that were sooooo hard, they broke the garbage disposal when I tried to hide the evidence!!

    You are a breath of fresh air!

  5. Smith Bites - Thank you so much!!! I had to laugh when I read that you broke the garbage disposal with your cookies - the image of a kid furtively trying to stuff cookies down the disposal is priceless! You should write that one up. I broke my in-law's garbage disposal once. We didn't have one growing up (I still don't), so I didn't really know the "rules" of what it could and couldn't handle! Quite embarrassing!


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