Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Memory meals

Food and meals are probably one of the things that helped drive humans into civilisation. Obtaining, preparing, sharing food—all of that has been part of our existence since before we could be called humans. It’s little wonder, then, that food can spark strong memories, and even emotions. I think about that all the time, and the past week or so gave me particular examples.

A lot of what I cook is directly connected to Nigel, which makes sense after a quarter century of shared meals. Over the past four years, though, I’ve been trying new dishes and new methods—something that was encouraged for me as for so many others by the boredom of Covid lockdowns and restrictions. Despite all the new stuff, some of which is now in my routine rotation, I still make things I’ve made for years, and some of those meals are strongly connected with Nigel. I have three examples.

The most recent example is above: It’s simply peanut butter and strawberry jam on toast—nothing even remotely fancy. However, for the last few years of Nigel’s life, he had that for breakfast nearly every working day. Together, we worked out systems so he could take his breakfast with him as he drove to work, using a plastic plate to put his toast on, an old tea towel to use as a bib (in case he dropped it), and a travel mug of tea. In his last couple years, I made this for him weekday mornings (and I had to be sure that the toast was cold before I added anything on top, because Nigel only liked his toast if it was crunchy from having cooled off.

I made this particular example on Sunday using supermarket bread I was trying out, and that morning, just like every other time I’ve made it since Nigel died, I thought about him, remembered making it for him, and I also remembered him coming home at the end of the day with a tea towel, plastic plate with jam smeared on it, and an empty travel mug. Some days there was more than one of each if he’d forgotten to bring them in the day (or so…) before. This doesn’t make me sad or anything, however, I think it was at least a year before I could even contemplate making it for myself.

The next example is from the day before—Saturday the 30th—and it’s also nothing unusual: It’s just scrambled eggs, toast and tinned baked beans. Even the fact I sprinkled a little dill on the eggs (in addition to my usual freshly ground salt and pepper) doesn’t make them usual, it’s the beans.

Nigel loved tinned baked beans, and he often had them on the weekend. When he did, he put them on his plate right out of the tin—no heating. He’d put the rest of the beans in a bowl in the fridge, but if he had them again the next day, he’d seldom heat them even then.

When I made the meal on Saturday, I made the eggs the way Nigel did—in a saucepan, rather in the fry pan I’d use. No reason, really, except that I’d already decided to have tinned baked beans, and planned to have them Nigel-style (which I used to do when he was alive, but seldom since). I guess I was just going with the theme. But as I was working on it and plating it, I thought of him and how he often made that for himself on a weekend morning (he always got up before me, usually several hours earlier).

Finally, a breakfast I made last June, something Nigel always called “Toasty Eggs”. My mother used to make it for me when I was a little kid, and at least once she referred to it as “a hole in one”. There was also a cookbook for kids in our house that called it “eggs in a frame”, which may have been kind of literally accurate, but to me the name seemed a little unimaginative.

In any case, Nigel didn’t have them very often, and he’d sometimes ask me to make them for him. I always found it challenging: The hole in the bread had to be big enough to contain the egg, but big enough to compromise the structural integrity of the bread frame—it was delicate work. Then, I had to flip it at exactly the right moment to cook the white on the other side without breaking the yolk, and then cooking it just long enough to cook the white without overcooking the yolk.

Nigel never taught me how to make it, so it took me a couple goes to work out it was best to fry the frame and—well, whatever the puck-like bread disc is called—just a bit before adding the egg. I also eventually worked out it was best to break the egg into a small bowl, and not on the side of the pan, because that helped keep the yolk intact (and if it broke, anyway, I could put that aside to make something else, then try again). I do this when I make fried or poached eggs, too, and it was the latter than gave me the idea because I'd seen Nigel do it when he made us poached eggs.

That particular iteration last June was quite possibly the first time I’ve made it since Nigel died, but it probably wasn’t. After all, like all the other meals in this post, it wasn’t remarkable, and so, I’d have no reason to note that I made it, and so, I wouldn’t have known I did if I hadn’t taken a photo of it that day. The ones from Saturday and Sunday were more deliberate (and so were the photos) because the connection between food/dishes and emotion-laden memories has been on my mind a lot lately, probably because of the fourth horrible anniversary.

That same connection has popped into my mind pretty much any time I’ve made meals that carry emotion-laden memories, and each time I've thought, “I really should blog about that at some point.” Now that I have, I can cross it off the list.

And now I suddenly want Toasty Eggs for dinner—thanks, Nigel.


Roger Owen Green said...

I've never made a toasty egg or a hole-in-one. I've known it existed for decades, and I do eat eggs fried, scrambled, poached, deviled, et al, but not that.

Arthur Schenck said...

I don't remember ever making it when I lived in the USA. I kind of remember thinking when I was a kid that it sounded difficult, and I wasn't wrong, really.