When I was a little girl. living in Brooklyn, and it was a perfect, warm day, or we were watching something beautiful, like a scarlet sunset over the city skyline, my mother would say to me, “Close your eyes, breathe it in, and hold this moment in your mind, so you may remember it with all your senses.” This is a short story about an evening I would hold in my memory as my mother taught me, and the impetus of my love of food.
As a single woman in my early 20s, I had been invited to a dinner party by a guy whose date invitations I had rejected for some time. He seemed very intelligent and perfectly nice, which I suppose is why I hadn’t gone out with him, as I tended to lean toward the brooding artist type. But I felt sorry for him when he told me none of his friends could make it for his birthday that evening. Could I possibly join him, his parents, and a family friend for dinner?
His parent’s apartment was high up in a handsome pre-war building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with gorgeous views of the city. It was a reader’s oasis. Well-worn furniture in dark wood, fabric upholstered chairs one could cradle in with a cat (they had two) on their lap for hours, and books everywhere the eye could see. Even the dining room had bookshelves, with thick histories and paperback mysteries tucked in among many cookbooks.
His father, a native Frenchman, and his mother, an American of German and Italian decent, served dinner in the European style: appetizer, main, salad, cheese, and dessert. I don’t remember what was served for the appetizer and main course, though I remember the meal feeling homey, like warm soup and roast chicken. A simple green salad followed, which was new to me, having always been served salad first, which I found revived my palate for what was to come: The cheese plate.
Up until this time I wasn’t very knowledgeable about food, though my parents were excellent cooks, and my grandparents took me to some of the finest restaurants in New York. I wasn’t aware of the just-launched Food Network, and though I had watched Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet, I had been living contentedly in a world of stews and roasts. Pizza, fast food, and Chinese delivery, or grilled cheese and spaghetti with tomato sauce from a jar in leaner times, were my meals when I started living on my own. In general, I didn’t stop to smell food, or appreciate its appearance and texture. I mostly ingested, chewed, and swallowed.
The only cheese products I was familiar with were Kraft’s American slices and grated Parmigiano in the green shaker can, Velveeta, and Boursin spreadable cheese with herbs, which seemed exotic at the time. My parents sometimes ate bleu cheese dressing on iceberg lettuce, which I abhorred for the dressing’s sour flavor and lumpy texture. The only brie I had was served ice-cold at a friend’s Superbowl party, where we spread the stiffened innards on crackers, leaving the rind behind.
I was a little wary of the cheese served that night, but I enjoyed both the soft goat, similar to the Boursin I was used to, and the mild bleu, surprised to find it not at all offensive. The last was a cheese that looked like a rectangle of hard, straw-colored cheddar. Taking a small slice of this, the birthday boy held it up to my lips and said, “Taste this, it’s incredible.”
I took the bit of cheese into my mouth, and the company, the conversation, the lovely surroundings, all faded into the background while I held it for a moment on my tongue. As it warmed I found the texture creamy, like butter, surprising for something that looked so hard, and it held tiny crunchy bits throughout, like salt on a soft pretzel. The flavor was bold. Tangy like lemons, and savory-sweet like hazelnut coffee. Looking back, my best guess is that it may have been something similar to Piave, but at the time I was too overwhelmed, and perhaps a bit ashamed of my ignorance, to ask.
I finally looked up to find the guy leaning back to look at me, staring at me questioningly. “Um,” I said stupidly, “this is GOOD.” He smiled and nodded slowly, as if he had shared a secret. I remember thinking there might be something about this boy after all.
A plum and apricot fruit tart with a birthday candle was brought from the kitchen, and we sang Happy Birthday. The tart, Calvados, and strong coffee were bringing me back to Earth. But why, I wondered, was anyone not noticing the distinct aroma of cat feces? The fragrance had been permeating the dining room for quite a while, and I had been peeking under the table to find the source of the odor, thinking for certain I’d find the cat had left a gift, when the guy’s mother begged, “Could someone please take the cheese into the kitchen?” It was taken away, and with it the unpleasant smell, when it dawned on me, it was that delicious cheese!
I often take this memory out, as my mother taught me, recalling the moment, how it awakened my senses, and how much I’ve learned about the cuisine of different cultures since. I no longer think of food with funky aromas as something to avoid, but something to explore.
Because of that meal, I no longer wanted to eat alone over the kitchen sink, but wanted to share food and talk about it with others. I went to cooking school. I took wine classes. I visited farms to buy local produce. I educated myself about sustainable and organic agriculture. I started a food blog, and I came to love “the wedge:” a quarter slice of iceberg slathered in the formerly abominable bleu cheese dressing, with bacon bits strewn on top.
I dated the guy for a few years. I shared many wonderful meals with him, his family and their friends, and became bold enough to scour markets to bring new foods for them to try. Though ultimately our mutual love of food could not overcome our differences and we eventually parted ways, I will always appreciate how he, and his family, opened up the world for me to taste.