Sunday, September 28, 2008

Food, Memory

Food is memory. We tie food to place, to holidays, to family. We eat certain foods out of nostalgia, or in an attempt to recapture the past. I recently bought a saffron lassi at a Midtown Indian deli, hoping to match the ones I drank at Swati Snacks in Bombay. But more than that, I wanted to relive the feeling of sitting across from Adeet in that restaurant, savoring our honeymoon and imagining our future. There are also foods that trigger memories, reminding us of repressed or unremembered events in our personal histories.

When Proust famously bit into a madeleine, it unlocked a forgotten childhood. I recently had my own "madeleine episode." I took the train down to the Financial District, where rival falafel vendors Sam and Alan battle for lunchtime revenue. I spotted Alan's cart first but arbitrarily chose to buy lunch from Sam. At least 20 other people had the same idea. I got in line behind them and had my $3 ready. One man (Sam?) took orders, while two others fried up the falafel. The service was brisk, with none of the banter I've heard from other street vendors. I didn't mind; the food smelled delicious.

I found a bench in Zuccotti Park and bit into my sandwich. It was a windy afternoon, and I struggled to hold onto my food while keeping my skirt from flapping immodestly. Despite the distraction, I couldn't help noticing how perfect this falafel tasted. It had been fried the right amount of time, crispy with no hint of grease. The tahini enhanced the falafel's chickpea flavor, instead of smothering it.

I hadn't had falafel like this in NYC, but it tasted familiar. And then I remembered.

In 1996, before starting graduate school, I spent several months in Jerusalem. I attended an ulpan, an intensive crash course in modern Hebrew, at Hebrew University. I lived with three Ukranian immigrants who had little patience for my shaky Hebrew and spoke to me in English. Our flat had a kitchen, but I seldom used it except to break open my emergency jar of peanut butter. I almost always had falafel for dinner. I was ecumenical in my selection of falafel stands, buying sandwiches from both Arab and Jewish vendors. 

Eating this sandwich made in lower Manhattan, I suddenly remembered the taste of those Israeli falafels. Then I turned around, and the sight of construction cranes at Ground Zero startled me into another memory.

One February morning during my stay in Jerusalem, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a #18 bus, the line I rode to Hebrew University's campus every day. The blast killed 26 people, including two American students. I wasn't on the bus, but I felt shaken. This was the closest I'd been to an act of terror. My classmates and I consoled each other the best we could. "At least our bus line won't be attacked again." Fear has its own peculiar logic.

The following week, another suicide bomber blew himself up on a #18 bus, killing 19 people. Our logic had failed us.

I didn't want to leave my room. I stayed in bed and canceled plans. When I finally agreed to venture out, my friends and I debated transportation methods. "Let's take a taxi. It's safer." "But what if the cab's behind a bus that blows up?" someone would counter. We cautiously returned to routine, and I went back to the falafel vendors. It surprised me to see me so many people walking around, getting on city buses, eating at outdoor caf├ęs—making new memories.

My "falafel flashback" occurred a week after the seventh anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers. As I looked around Zuccotti Park, I wondered at the number of people so close to the site. Tourists admired fruit pies at a farmers' market, and office workers considered their lunch options. But why should I wonder? People need to eat. And make new memories.

Sam's Falafel
Zuccotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza) • NY, NY
photos by Kate Deshmukh


URBAN:X:P:P: said...

Have I underestimated what you are capable of, writing-wise? I am now officially afraid of your future encyclicals. I'm gonna need a ringer. Maybe Other Kate.

sandhya said...

This is a beautiful essay. Worth of some columns I read on Sunday mornings :)