Pairing Memories With Meals Connects Heart and Palate

By Herb Gardener –

Pickled Herring

Summer 1975. While visiting my sister Kate in the Frostian farmland of western Massachusetts I amused myself one evening by matching pop song titles to figures from Watergate. For example, the Beatles’ “She Said” was my choice for Martha Mitchell. Bob Haldeman drew Big Brother/Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain.” It was a relaxing exercise after weeding Kate’s garden where zucchini aspired to the size of oxygen tanks.

Now that cooking has displaced politics in my constellation of interests I want to try the game again with a few changes. Just as many cuisinistas labor over pairing food and wine, I wondered how I would pair significant moments in my life with their ideal meals given another opportunity. Or, what meal best evokes memories or the spirit of those occasions. Here are the results in no particular order.

If I had another last meal with my father pickled herring would be on the table. A Swede from Michigan’s upper peninsula he grew up with barrels of pickled and brined items in the cellar. We both enjoyed vinegared treats, and herring was our snack ritual favorite. Thank goodness he wasn’t Norwegian, or I might be writing about lutefisk.

For my college graduation Peking duck replaces the overpriced chain restaurant fondue that I shared with family. I’ve heard that Martina Navratilova celebrated at least one Wimbledon victory with this Asian delicacy. Server, please bring my lacquered trophy by the table before carving.

Lamb Vindaloo
Lamb Vindaloo

On the morning of my 43rd birthday I drove to a skydiving facility and tandem jumped out of a perfectly good plane at 13,000 ft. I felt that it was important to scare myself a bit and affirm at mid-life the enduring value of risk-taking. Nonetheless, an unimpressed Flora has watched the jump video and deadpanned, “That’s nice. You can never do it again.” My retrospective choice for a thematic meal — a blistering lamb vindaloo (freefall!), soothed by a coriander-mint yogurt chutney (chute deployed!).

Memories – whether real or manufactured – flow easily when people and flavors we love connect heart and palate. May your food reveries be sweet and those close to you sweeter still.

“Like Proust biting into a madeleine and recalling his lost youth, the subtle fragrance of orange blossoms reminds expatriate Moroccan Jews of balmy evenings in Fez or Tetouan, when the heady scent of citrus heralds the onset of spring.” So begins the introduction to Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane’s The Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine from Morocco (Ten Speed Press, 2001). Swaddle these succulent brochettes in warm pita bread and serve with harissa and assorted salads, such as Israeli and tabouli.


Grilled Lamb Brochettes

Grilled Brochettes

2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-inch cubes

15 sprigs cilantro, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ teaspoon ground cumin, plus additional for dipping

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil

Harissa, for dipping


In a large bowl, combine the meat with cilantro, paprika, garlic, ½ teaspoon cumin, ½ teaspoon salt, lemon juice, and olive oil. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours, or overnight. Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill. Thread meat onto skewers, allowing 8-10 pieces on each skewer. Place the skewers on the grill rack and grill, turning occasionally, for five to six minutes for rare. Serve with little saucers filled with cumin, salt, and harissa for dipping.


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