Wednesday, August 31, 2016
These Memories That Reek
Darlington Road, circa 2014, from Google Street View
It takes a lot to throw me for a loop these days.
But this week, I was unprepared for the rush of memories that would come with walking into an unfamiliar place with so many familiar smells.
On a recent road trip, when my friend Robert was planning our lunch stop, he turned to me and said, "You're of Germanic descent, right? You're going to love this place."
It turns out that Robert's favorite place to eat in Carlsbad, California is a German delicatessen called Tip Top Meats. I didn't think much of it at first mention, since I've ventured to places like Alpine Village and various biergartens without incident.
But as soon as I walked into that European eatery that's been there since 1967, I realized I was in trouble.
Something about the building itself—and maybe its shelves—smelled like my grandparents' house on Darlington Road in Syracuse, or maybe more like their summer camp house on the Oneida River. It's an old, musty smell of damp wood and aged newspaper.
I was still kind of OK at that point. But as I walked through the front market area to order my lunch at the counter in the back, my nose was hit with vinegar, sweet and sour (sauer), and the vague sense of overcooked vegetables and sauce-smothered meat.
It was putrid and unsettling—and I couldn't figure out why all the diners seemed to be enjoying their meals of picked beets and red cabbage, their juices bleeding into all the other foods on their plates.
Didn't the stench bother them? Couldn't they smell the fear and anguish that had gone rancid?
It was the smell of my childhood kitchen, too—the place where inevitably all hell broke loose. That's where our mother engaged in her secret eating and where she kept the wooden spoons that she broke upon our bottoms. That's where our mother would load story upon story of our misbehavior upon our father during the brief 30 minutes he had at home for dinner between the two jobs he worked to support the family.
That's where we'd gaze out of the window onto Sunnycrest Avenue, trying to catch a glimpse of the world going on outside.
The kitchen is also where I'd lie curled up in a ball on the floor every night after dinner, doubled over in pain from some unknown and never-diagnosed abdominal ailment.
You'd think that the stink of my own memories would've been enough to traumatize me, but then I tied to choose something to eat, since I grew up hating most of the German food that my mother cooked.
I nearly fell apart, looking at dishes that I'd forgotten all about eating, like rouladen and rostbraten. Seeing their names typed out on the menu above brought my mother's voice back into the insides of my ears and filled me with dread for mealtime, or for anytime I'd have to go into that kitchen.
Seeing the pictures of the food—and the actual dishes being delivered to the surrounding tables—was almost too much to bear. I ordered my black forest ham and swiss sandwich and then made a beeline to the bathroom to escape it al for just a little too long.
I used to escape the kitchen at home by going into the bathroom, too.
When I returned to our table and to the ham and cheese sandwich that had been delivered for me while I was gone, I tried to compose myself, but I was visibly shaken. I even tried to have a bite or two of the German potato salad—one of the few things I used to actually like eating—but the familiar flavor was too much.
I couldn't wait to get out of there. Isn't it bad enough that I dream about my mother and my childhood house nearly every night? That, in my dreams, I can't figure out why I'm still living there or why I'm still even talking to them, when things are so bad?
Or that even while asleep, I can't seem to figure out a way to break away—because, for some reason, I can't just walk out the door.
I may not be able to control what happens while I'm asleep, but I can try to avoid these triggers in my waking hours. The German dishes of my early life always felt like a punishment—the Fleischkuechle the knackwurst, the sauerbraten, pork and sauerkraut, and spinach and bacon. I'll be glad if I never taste or smell any of them again.
But I wonder what else I've forgotten—what else will show up uninvited and unannounced, at perhaps some inopportune time?
What else is lurking in the recesses of my mind, whittling away at my subconscious psyche, undermining me in ways I couldn't possibly comprehend now, or maybe ever?
I really would rather not find out.
So I guess I'll just have to keep trying new flavors to keep the old ones at bay.
Love at First Bite
Sense Memory: A Taste of London