Tuesday, February 13, 2007

“Nothing is Better…” (An Ode to Oatmeal)
— A Miniseries (1 of 3)

An Acquired Taste
My wife doesn’t get it; in fact sometimes it just makes her cringe, my taste in tastes. She just can’t understand the way that I like to mix and match in one bite, things that some folks wouldn’t even put together on the same plate. Things like baked beans and applesauce, yogurt and wheat thins, beer and chocolate; sweet and salty, soft and crunchy, cottage cheese and…well, you get the picture.

It’s all about contrasts with me. I love the wonderful juxtaposition of contrasting flavors, temperatures and textures as they do their unique tango on my tongue-go, eventually meeting up in my belly — which, by the way, is the same place they would have met if I’d eaten them separately. So what’s the big deal?

It really used to bother her, but now in more recent years, I suppose Michelle has accepted her husband’s palate-ial weirdness and no longer feigns disgust at my crazy combinations like she used to. But then again, while she might not be the type that eats everything on her plate separately (a habit of some that drives me crazy) she’s still got a few food quirks of her own.

Michelle is usually very careful to not allow the different foods on her plate to mix, or preferably, even touch. Sometimes she’ll go to great lengths, using her knife to prop the plate up slightly at one end, in order that a particularly juicy dish is pooled at the low end and can’t mingle with those on the uphill side.

Sheesh. And she calls ME weird.

As for me, I never had a problem with my food touching; like I said, they all get mixed up in the end up anyhow. And again, I actually enjoy the mixture of tastes as I’m eating. More often than not, I’ll take a sample of two different foods on the same bite and revel in their mutual commingling in my mouth.

And speaking of baked beans and applesauce — my all-time fave contrast combo, BTW — at least now as an adult I’ve outgrown my childhood habit of literally stirring the two foods together on my plate before eating them (Emily Post might have a problem with that one). But either way, the sensation of contrasting foods in my mouth concurrently is something I have always savored and had never even questioned — until recently.

I believe I may have finally placed a finger on the genesis of my quirk about mixing foods, tastes and textures.

Perhaps you can blame it all on oatmeal…and my Mother, Annie.

All mixed up
You see, what I realized very recently is that nearly the sum-total of the few strong memories I retain of my Mother are surrounded by food; and one food in particular reigns supreme in those memories — oatmeal. It’s the first thing I can ever remember eating. And oh, how I remember eating it.

It quite possibly could be among my earliest memories, but I clearly recall sitting in my high chair, with a warm bowl of that golden mush in front of me, loving every bite.

However there was more than just oatmeal in that bowl — and therein lies my epiphany. Mom used to add one other ingredient to the standard mix of oatmeal, butter, sugar and milk — a soft, poached egg was also a part of the mix. And I so remember the wonderful conglomeration of tastes; the egg yolk with the oatmeal — the semi-solid yolk’s naturally saltiness combining with the sweetness of the sugar and the milk. It still literally makes my mouth water thinking about it.

And the weirdest part is that having held that memory my entire life, never once that I can recall, had I ever tried to duplicate it. It makes me laugh at myself to think about it. Why not try it again at some point? It’s almost as though I didn’t want to taint the memory because it was such a touchstone to my Mother for me. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t taste as good as I remembered it. Maybe I didn’t want to be disappointed if that were the case. Aww hell, maybe I was just too frikkin’ lazy.

Whatever the reason, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that encouraged me to try to create at least a reasonable facsimile of that moment from my childhood one recent Sunday morning.

This whole thought process began innocently enough when I was preparing my oatmeal that morning. I reached into the fridge for the milk and spotted a hardboiled egg, just sitting there, waiting to be eaten. Immediately I thought, “Hmm…it’s not exactly poached, but, hey, why not?”

I peeled the egg, chopped it up and threw it into the microwave for about 15 seconds, just enough to take the chill off. Then I scooped the pieces into my bowl of oatmeal and mixed it all up.

You know, it’s truly amazing how our senses of taste and smell are such powerful triggers of memory, but I tell you honestly, with my first bite I was transported back to my mom’s kitchen, in our old house; my mind exploding with thoughts that I know I hadn’t touched upon in decades.

I saw glimpses of my Mother, the kitchen, our family eating dinner at the table. I saw myself eating spinach for the first time — and liking it. I saw Davey at breakfast, eating his own favorite cereal, Post Toasties, working that bowl so that he always had one last bite of cereal at the end of the milk.

I saw our old refrigerator — that scary thing where they kept the bananas; the bananas that made me so sick from eating too many that my stomach still feels queasy. I still can’t take bananas — or their texture — to this day as a result.

I saw my high chair. And again, I returned to that vivid memory of seeing my bowl in front of me, filled with all those wonderful ingredients that spawned my vision.

Then I thought, "Could it be — that unlikely concoction? Is that the source of my penchant for contrasts in taste and texture?" Perhaps that’s a bit of a leap. But just the same, it made sense to me. It even made sense to Michelle when I related my little flashback to her later. Ya just never know how the mind works or how quirks are born.

Now, where’s that plate of beans and applesauce…

Next: “Quaker? I just met ‘er!”
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