Food can stir up memories like almost nothing else. Perhaps it’s because we eat with so many of our senses at once? Take coffee for instance. I hardly ever drink it, I’m more of a tea girl, but the smell of coffee brewing in the morning makes me think of my dad every time. I blink and I’m seven years old, the smell wafting into my bedroom where I’m still warm under the covers and half asleep, knowing he’s up and getting ready to leave for work, waiting for him to come kiss me goodbye, his mustache tickling my cheek and the smell of coffee on his breath.
Or blueberry pancakes. While a lovely idea, the sight, the smell, or (god forbid!) the taste of them will forever start my stomach quivering with the memory of a particularly bad flu I had as a child. I’ll leave it at that.
I’ve talked about this idea before. Here in reference my grandma, and how she is so connected to Italian food in my mind that almost anything with red sauce conjures her up before my very eyes. And here, when I told you about this decidedly un-hip Snickerdoodle, one bite of which drops me in the middle of the kitchen floor in my childhood home.
It’s a theme I can’t help repeating though. It is the key to why food holds such an important place in my life. It turns out I’m not the only one. In the book I just finished reading, Memoir of the Sunday Brunch, food is the center around which Julia Pandl’s family orbits.
Her parents own a restaurant and, at the age of 14, Pandl is conscripted into the family business just like her eight (!) brothers and sisters before her. The coming-of-age story that unfolds from this event is punctuated with food: from a scarring breakfast sausage to smoked trout with a hangover to fiscal responsibility as taught by a can of peanuts.
It is certainly cliché to say “I laughed, I cried…,” but I did both. Pandl has an understated, self-effacing, but steady humor that had me chuckling through much of the book. And when fear, loss, and grief creep in and take that humor’s place, as they of course do in life, they are all the more moving for its absence.
The book is broken into two distinct halves. In the first we grow up with Pandl and get to know her family, especially her parents, through the lens of the restaurant, Pandl’s in Bayside. In the second half, we go along for the ride as Pandl wrestles with life, examines her faith, and explores her relationship with her parents. My only slight complaint is that the halves are too starkly different. That one moment I’m surrounded by the warm, comforting smell of brunch in the restaurant and the next I don’t get so much as a pancake for chapters. That is also, I suppose, how life is though. You think you’ve figured out what your life is all about and then it turns out that’s not it at all. The loss of what we think is important can be one of the surest ways to show us what is truly important.
For Pandl and her family, as for me and I’m sure many others, food is the vehicle through which memories are formed. It is the catalyst for them to be shared and related to. Ultimately, however, it is the people we love who are the substance of our memories and the true sustenance of our lives.