1. Repressed Food Memories 2. Food of "love"?
- Eric Eto
Earlier this week, I went by the hot dog cart in Madison Square run by the Danny Meyer folks who run 11 Madison Park in NYC. All this time I was thinking I never had a chicago hot dog, and I was waiting with anticipation for this bastard version in NYC. Then my excitement sank somewhat after noticing all the "kids" making the food. While they had their little painted-on smiles and good attitude, it felt a little too superficial and forced. My other observation was that these "kids" making the food really looked amateurish making the stuff. No ease of motion, even putting on mustard from a squeeze bottle looked unnatural. If I could see the thought bubbles emerging from their heads, it would probably read, "I got a job at 11 Madison Park, and I have to do this crap!?" OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but that's kind of how I felt buying this hot dog. It felt a little pathetic. They didn't even look like they were having fun like those "kids" who serve you at restaurants at your favorite summer resort towns. Maybe it was me, but I doubt it. It was the only nice day of the week.
Forgive me for rambling because that wasn't the main point of this post. The point was about thinking I'd never eaten a chicago hot dog. After I took the first few bites, I realized I'd had this before. I was conjuring up hot dogs from my past... was it at Top Dog in Berkeley?... was it at the sausage place in Venice Beach?... did I actually have one in Chicago in a former life?... Then it dawned on me. I was on a Junior High School trip to San Francisco circa 1979, staying at the Travel Lodge in Fisherman's Wharf. There was a little stand near the adjacent corner of the street the Travel Lodge was on, facing the wharf. After getting chowder from one of the crab stands, I needed something more to fill me up, and I thought a hot dog would do. Anyway, little did I know that I was getting a chicago dog. I even remember the Vienna Sausage sign that was hanging above this little stand (mainly because the first thing that popped to mind was those little canned weiners--which I thought were vienna sausages back then). I remember thinking it was the best hot dog I ever had... in fact, that might have been the highlight of that trip (well, besides hanging out a lot with a girl I had a crush on, but that's another story). I went back several more times in those few days that the guy who ran the stand remembered me. So there I was, sitting in Madison Square Park, with all these memories bubbling up, having what I thought was a decent enough hot dog, but nowhere near as revelatory as that first experience when I was in Jr High.
I know that having these kinds of flashbacks aren't uncommon, as I'm sure we have those association with old smells that we reencounter here and there. However, I'm not quite certain I've had a positive tastebud memory this powerful (a negative memory, I gather, would be a gag reflex from a noxious taste memory -- I've had those too). Anyone care to share theirs? Also, does anyone remember the hotdog stand near Fisherman's wharf? I've even lived in the bay area for a few years after college, and completely forgot about the place.
To finish, I want to revisit something I said earlier. If that hot dog at the Madison Square Park were made with lot more "love" and care (I'm thinking of a Speed's hot dog in Boston now), would it have tasted better? I think probably. But it's difficult to put a finger on that intangible. Someone mentioned earlier today about "wanting to like" a dish in the WD-50 thread on the Manhattan board. Is that what it is? If we care enough about the energy, thought, care, and "love" that is put into preparing a dish, we want to like it more and invariably we do? But then again, it does taste better too. Thoughts?
A great post, Eric.
And it did bring back a memory of a memory. A couple of years ago I went into the oldest restaurant that serves Chinese food in the town I'm living in. The place is called "Gene's" and these days it's mostly a steak house as there are several other places that serve what passes for Chinese cuisine here. But friends had told me that Gene's was interesting, so I went in to have lunch and ordered one of their lunch specials. The first bite I took started bringing to mind ancient food memories, and by the time I was halfway through, I realized that the dish tasted exactly like the Chinese food of my childhood, the Chinese food from what was the only Chinese restaurant in the small, semi-rural town I grew up in. I think the taste sensation was simply from the cheap, American, imitation soy sauce that both used in their dishes, but that faux soy taste was something I hadn't experienced in nearly 40 years. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by food sensations that had been so familiar in my childhood (my dad loved Chinese food)--yet they were tastes that I couldn't recall ever having since then. As you point out in your post, these flashbacks probably aren't uncommon, but it was almost eerie to have such old food memories still so fresh in this old head of mine.
Thanks again for the post and reminding me again of those memories.
Eric -- you'll be sad to hear that it seems Speeds is no more. A few hounds have been to get a dog this season and there's no sign of the blue truck. He was talking about retiring last time I saw him, and he was about 85, but I lived in denial and never thought the day would come. Hounds all over Boston are thanking their lucky stars they got to sample the magic, or kicking themselves because they never got there. Count yourself as one of the blessed who witnessed his hot dog zen.
Yumyum, I've also been checking the Boston boards with great anticipation for someone to report a Speed's sighting. I'm not quite ready to despair over such a tremendous loss. I may be in denial, but I have great hopes for perhaps a Speed Jr. to take the reins and rebuild the blue cart and start anew. These thoughts give me the strength to get out of bed every morning.
Terrific thoughts, Eric, and positively Proustian. It sent me into an uncanny reverie, triggered by nothing, really. Like the poster below, it was of the Chinese food of my childhood. There was a restaurant in Red Bank, NJ, called George Lu's and I always ordered the same things, Egg Drop Soup and Chicken Chow Mein. There was nothing about this gluey stuff that is in any way like what I have grown to appreciate in these years since, but I would sell my last madeleine for another crack at the stuff. The chow mein was a beloved amalgam of mild-tasting vegetables, bok choy the main player, nicely sealed with its cornstarched and MSG'd sauce, topped with julienned strips of chicken breast. Those requisite "chinese noodles" were underneath, bless them, can't remember the last time I saw those crunchy, apocryphal things. When I was feeling the rambunctious 9-year-old, I would lace the plate with that soy sauce brand that would now curl my lip. Oh,aha, La Choy, like the crispy noodles.
"Is that what it is? If we care enough about the energy, thought, care, and "love" that is put into preparing a dish, we want to like it more and invariably we do? But then again, it does taste better too." An intriguing remark, and it reminds me to pull my punches when I rave/rant about a dining experience. So many things go into the mix to make it a success or a failure.
Here's a food of love from 1953:
One of my friends was four years old in 1953 when the "Great Tornado" hit in Worcester, Massachusetts.
( for those from tornado alley -- this was called the "Great Tornado" because we usually get small ones in Mass -- this one killed 90 people).
Her mom was grilling hot dogs when the tornado came --she scooped up her little girl and went into the basement. The girl kept eating her dog, not realizing what was happening, and the house was swept away.
So my girlfreind has always associated hot dogs with safety and comfort because she and her mom survived.
I recall that hot dog stand ("Old Vienna" something?) very well. I searched the Internet for more specifics, but found nothing concrete.
However, I stumbled across a piece by Loren Maazel, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, called "The Last Day of Innocence" in which he describes finding a hot dog vendor at Fisherman's Wharf to feed his starving kids while passing through town (he thought) on 9/10/2001. "We found a hot-dog vendor. Need I describe those franks with the onions, mustard and relish?" He goes on to describe dinner in Chinatown that night, where his wife got a fortune cookie message that read "Be grateful for today's pleasures. One does not know what the morrow may bring."
He goes on to add:
[Theme from Twilight Zone rises here]
BTW, the place at Venice beach was probably Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom...