"And on the Memory of Your Tastebuds, They Are All Umami"- originally published in Revolution John, re-published by Medium.com.
bitter; bell peppers
You are slicing bell peppers into ribbons when your man tells you that moving in together was a mistake. Next to the cutting board, you’ve measured out a thimble of hot pepper flakes, and the shrimp are shelled and deveined, cooling in the fridge until you’ve finished the rest of the prep. He asks if you heard what he just said. You keep slicing the pepper meticulously; you are proud of this one dish—shrimp fra diavolo—that you make well.
Before you left your job on the coast behind to move further inland with him, the chef at the restaurant had taught you the secret of making the dish really, really well—it wasn’t just the heat of the pepper flakes and the sweetness of the shrimp that gave his version of the dish its reputation as the best one around. It was the bell peppers, cut into matchsticks and added to the pan with the shrimp.
The chef taught you how to pick the right kinds of bell peppers when he took you to the farmer’s market one Saturday, flipping the peppers onto their stems and counting the points on their bottoms—See, the fewer points, the sweeter the pepper, he’d explained—holding your hand, holding the pepper—most people want the one or two pointed peppers. For my fra diavolo, I only use the four-pointed ones, he’d said, plucking the four-pointed pepper from your left hand as though it were a flower. You set down a two-pointed pepper—red and slick as a smear of cadmium red—and ask him why. He tells you to stick out your tongue, and where most men would seize the opportunity to make a rude joke, you trust the chef enough to do it without even really thinking.
He touches the back of your tongue lightly: Here’s where you taste the salt of the sauce, he says, before he softly touches the tip of your tongue, And this is where you taste the sweet of the shrimp. He slides his finger to the side of your tongue: But here and here, he says, these parts taste sour and bitter. The sour comes from the balsamic vinegar I add when I’m caramelizing the onions and garlic—but it’s the bell peppers, the bitter, that finish the dish and make mine different from anyone else’s recipe. The bitterness of the peppers makes sure that all your tastebuds are engaged.
You’d already known on that morning at the farmer’s market that you were putting in your two weeks notice and moving inland. As you continue to slice the peppers into matchsticks, it occurs to you that maybe the chef did, too, and that’s why he taught you how to make this dish, and made sure that you knew how to make it really, really well—as well as he could make it, in fact. On the cutting board, you have created a neat little stack of green slivers, which the not-your-man-anymore in your kitchen carelessly picks up and plays with, asking you, Are you still making dinner? You do not raise your eyes from the Wüsthof blade, and say, Not for you. He slams the door to let you know that even a mistake should have known to let him stay for dinner. After all, it’s the one dish you make really well.
Once he’s gone, you think again about that morning at the farmer’s market with the chef who taught you this recipe, and how to really taste something well, all your tastebuds should be engaged. You carelessly lick a tear from the corner of your mouth and lift a piece of pepper to your tongue. Swallowing the two down together, though, all you really taste is the bitter.
sweet; Tupelo honey
She wasn’t really telling the truth when she said she couldn’t make anything well—the chef remembered one Sunday morning catering job, where she had to be there with all the other waitstaff, dressed like a monkey in a tuxedo to float from rich person to rich person, silently offering a tray of assorted crudité like some sort of ghost who could only speak in descriptions of the amuse-bouche arranged on the silver platters.
She’d brought in a pan of biscuits for everyone to share, overfilled and pinched down with aluminum foil to keep them hot. He’d done the math in his head; she’d have had to get up at four o’clock in the morning to get the biscuits baked and still clock in for the catering call at 6 a.m.
They were big as a boxer’s fist and the fluffiest biscuits he’d ever eaten. She called them cat heads and split one open for him, buttering it generously and holding out a jar of honey to him, saying, Don’t share the honey with everyone. It’s Tupelo that my daddy sends me from his apiary. It’s special. I just brought it because I thought you’d appreciate it on your biscuit. He watched her drizzle a thin squiggle of honey onto the buttered biscuit, and watched it melt into the springy layer of dough at the center, before she tucked the small jar of honey back into her purse.
Later, when he sat down to do the ordering, he added Tupelo honey to the list, instead of the ordinary honey the restaurant had been ordering for the kitchen. Though on many weekends, he attempted to replicate her biscuits, he could never get his to raise up as tall as her pan of cat heads. And though the Tupelo honey he kept in the house was sweet, distinctive, different from the ordinary honey that always came in the little plastic bear, it couldn’t even begin to compare with the tiny Ball Mason jar from her daddy’s bees that she’d kept safe in her purse.
He knew he had to tell her it was a mistake when he saw the limes in the fridge; limes were a commitment that he just wasn’t ready to handle. Limes meant lowball glasses of vodka tonic on the rocks, homemade guacamole whose leftovers would go brown in the Tupperware and pies with scalloped edges and Cool-Whip topping. Limes were a settling down grocery item. Though it was true, he’d asked her to leave her job on the coast and move in with him, he hadn’t really given any serious consideration to their future until he saw that bag of limes, sitting in the vegetable crisper. Seeing the red mesh bag of green globes made him realize that a bag of limes meant you were in it for the long haul.
And, if he were truly honest with himself—he’d never really cared much for citrus fruits of any kind.
Salty; potato chips
See here, Leyla, watch what I’m doing, Grams said, running the rolling pin over the three-quarters empty bag of store-brand potato chips. If you’re gonna catch you a man when you’re older, you’re gonna need to know how to make at least one meal really good, I mean, so good that no one else makes it quite like you—you know to get to their heart you gotta cut a path to it through their stomach, right? Your momma told you that yet? Leyla shakes her blond head up and down emphatically.
On the kitchen counter, Grams has arranged the other ingredients—cooked macaroni elbows, two cans each of cream of mushroom soup and tuna fish, a small bag of frozen peas, and a plastic-looking orange block of Velveeta, cut into small cubes. It don’t need to be fancy, she tells Leyla, just good. She hands the spatula and big mixing bowl to the girl and says, Now dump in everything except the mushroom soup and give it a good stir to mix it all up even. Once all the ingredients are blended to her satisfaction, Grams scrapes out the two cans of mushroom soup, which land in the macaroni like two gray, gelatinous cylinders, which Leyla can’t help but find both fascinating and a little gross at the same time. She doesn’t much care for tuna casserole herself; but because it’s her daddy’s favorite meal, her momma makes it for supper at least once a week. And now that Leyla’s ten, Grams has decided that it’s high time for her to help out and learn how to make supper on her own.
It’s the potato chips that finish it off right, Grams tells her, shaking out the salty shards of potato over the casserole, after Leyla’s turned it into the greased-up pan. Though sometimes, she admits, even the best casserole can’t keep a man happy at home. Leyla looks at Grams, not understanding. Grams waves her hand at the girl, Oh, land sakes, girl—just remember don’t ever run out of potato chips and you’ll be fine.
Vanilla; a peculiar bouquet
When the chef was teaching Leyla how to make his signature dish, shrimp fra diavolo, for the man she was moving inland to be with, he stood close to her, making sure she was chiffonading the peppers, though that was a technique usually reserved for leafy vegetables and herbs—ostensibly, he was at her elbow to supervise the motions of her blade through the pepper. Really, it was so he could smell the back of her neck—vanilla, like a cookie. He told her once that she smelled like a cupcake and she responded, Vanilla is so boring. He hadn’t explained to her that its mixture of spicy, floral and sweet notes were actually among the most complex flavors known to the human tongue, though he’d thought it. Nor did he tell her that its name translated roughly to “black flowers,” due to its origin legend of the plant springing up from the spilled blood of star-crossed lovers. Later, he’d wish he had. Instead, he said, Vanilla’s like salt. Everyone takes it for granted, and no one really appreciates it until they notice it’s missing.