We have little choice in the matter when it comes to food memories; they choose us. Of what we do remember from childhood, inconsequential details rise up from our subconscious when the nerves are triggered, whether we're prepared or not.
When there are blueberries, I think of Christmas morning. Before my brother and I would arrive bleary-eyed and still in our pajamas to the living room, my mom had baked blueberry and poppy seed muffins. I also think of my grandmother. When I took a food writing workshop with Dianne Jacob earlier this year, a writing exercise focused on one object we could see from our chair. I chose blueberries, and they became the color of my grandmother's eyes as I remembered her in the kitchen, making goat's milk ice cream on a hot summer day.
This is what I wrote.
"Two blueberries lean together on a white napkin. They are the eyes of my grandmother, piercing me from the doorway in her small kitchen, gesturing that the ice cream is ready. Icy, freshly churned in the wooden bucket, we eat it together on the porch at dusk, and in the first, sloppy bite, is summer's entirety. The long season sloshing around in my stomach, like a caged bird longing to be free."
My grandmother died before I was able to fully appreciate her cooking, but from stories my mother has told me, buckwheat pancakes were a staple in her kitchen. I like to think my grandmother would approve of these. Diane Lockward's poem, too, is wrapped in memories, though we don't know it until three quarters of the way through, when the tone shifts. You'll see.
by Diane Lockward
Deep-blue hue of the body, silvery bloom
on its skin. Undersized runt of a fruit,
like something that failed to thrive, dented top
a fontanel. Lopsided globe. A temperate zone.
Tiny paradox, tart and sweet, homely
but elegant afloat in sugar and cream,
baked in a pie, a cobbler, a muffin.
The power of blue. Number one antioxidant fruit,
bantam-weight champ in the fight against
urinary tract infections, best supporting actor
in a fruit salad. No peeling, coring or cutting.
Lay them out on a counter, strands of blue pearls.
Pop one at a time, like M&M's, into your mouth.
Be a glutton and stuff in a handful, your tongue,
lips, chin dyed blue, as if feasting on indigo.
Fruit of the state of New Jersey.
Favorite fruit of my mother.
Sundays she scooped them into pancake batter,
poured circles onto the hot greased griddle, sizzled
them gold and blue, doused with maple syrup.
This is what I want to remember: my mother
and me, our quilted robes, hair in curlers,
that kitchen, that table,
plates stacked with pancakes, blueberries sparkling
like gemstones, blue stars in a gold sky,
the universe in reverse,
the two of us eating blueberry pancakes.
from What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2006)
First, a celebration of blueberries. Facts and virtues are listed (how they are the fruit of New Jersey, always elegant in desserts), and it's not until the end of the second stanza when the central question is revealed. How does one cope with loss? Now, blueberries are not just helpful for urinary tract infections, but the tone has turned deeply personal. The favorite fruit of my mother, she writes.
The speaker is suddenly drowning like pancakes in syrup, in memories of her mother, firmly gripping the physicality, the anchor of "that kitchen," the wood of "that table," and the sparkling blueberries that dotted the pancakes mother and daughter made together.
We all carry memories like this with us. Even if yours is not about pancakes or breakfast, it's easy to resonate with the emotion of coming face to face with a moment in time and trying desperately to recreate it in a tangible way. That's why cooking is so special. We might not be able to move "the universe in reverse," but we can make the very recipe that acts as a bridge between this life and the next. We can do, we can touch, we can stand at the counter and stir a bowl of batter, and we can eat.
BLUEBERRY BUCKWHEAT PANCAKES
After discovering Ellie Krieger's buckwheat pancake recipe a while back, it's become a favorite for breakfast. I used to cover the pan in butter (delicious yes, but I've found oil help the pancakes brown even better), but have taken a liking to brushing the pan with a layer of oil just before cooking.
Recipe inspired by Ellie Krieger
1 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 cup frozen blueberries
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then whisk the wet ingredients in a small bowl or large glass measuring cup. Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly pour in the wet, whisking as you go. Be sure not to over mix. Add the blueberries at the end and stir until just incorporated.
Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat for 3-4 minutes. Brush the skillet with oil, then add batter with a 1/4 measuring cup. Cook until the surface begins to bubble and is golden brown. Flip and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Serve with butter and maple syrup.