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Friday, March 01, 2013

Peach Sandwiches and Sweet Tea

Jacques Linard
I've always been fascinated by the way a sight or sound or smell can trigger a memory.

I used to wear essence of Patchouli - a "busty herb of the mint family". I'd get a bottle at the health food store and put just a few drops behind the ears and on my wrists. After a while, my entire closet and all my bureau draws reeked of the stuff. More than one of my friends would remark "I smelled you before you walked into the room".

I loved the earthy fragrance of it - mostly because it reminded me of my late teens - early twenties, when, it seemed, every friend's apartment I walked into was burning a stick of Patchouli incense. The prevailing "wisdom" at the time was that Patchouli would mask the smell of pot, but even if you didn't actually .... um ... "imbibe", it was a signal that you were "cool" enough to know that it did and some might infer that you, in fact, had had a bit of a "toke" before your guests arrived, so you were cool no matter what.

And, at that time, being "cool" - or even just the illusion of being "cool" - was very, very important. I suspect it still is. It's definition is just different for each generation.

Besides, Patchouli was very inexpensive. A small bottle used to cost a few bucks and last forever. As an added bonus, you seemed very "cool" to anyone who had ever "grooved" to the music of Buffalo Springfield or the Doobie Brothers or The Guess Who or Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or ....

Well, now I'm calling up other memories, right?  Okay, for a certain generation of people.

Just the other day, I walked into a health food store and someone was burning a stick of Patchouli incense and my mind was instantly transported to another time and place. That one fragrance brought a rush of memories - I could hear the music of  "House of the Rising Sun", feel my colorful macrame bag hanging off my shoulder, and even taste pizza - that staple of youth - in my mouth. 

No, I've never "dropped acid" or other hallucinatory drugs. Yes, I have tried pot. Many, many years ago. It just made me very hungry for Oreo cookies and I just figured, what was the point of that?

I think the senses are a very powerful link to memories.

One of the real enjoyments of eating fresh peaches in the summertime involves not just the taste of those particular fruits, but the memories they stir. I can take a bite of a fresh, warm peach and as the sticky-sweet nectar is dripping down my face and arms, I'm instantly transported to the picnic table at my grandparent's house - the one under the grape vine which my grandfather used to make his own wine and my grandmother used to make the best grape jelly I've ever had.

Suddenly, I'm six years old and my grandmother has brought a bowl of peaches to the table on a beautiful early summer afternoon. I can feel the warm sunshine on my face and hear the wind rustling through the trees and the vines which filled their backyard. I can hear my sisters and brothers and cousins laughing and the intense debates we'd have about the peach pit.

If you put the pit in a cup of water, would it sprout? Should we bury it and see if we could grow our own peach tree? If we cut open the peach pit, what would we find in there? Would there be "baby peaches" inside?  Might it bleed? Would it hurt the pit?

One of my older cousins would say, under his breath and in Portuguese, that it looked more like "a woman's bottom".

Wherever you sat at the picnic table, you were never too far for my grandmother to give you a mighty whack on the back of your head, which sent the rest of us into gales of giggles, even if we hadn't heard, much less understood, the naughty thing that had been said.

She had magically appeared at the picnic table from the back door of the kitchen carrying a large tray and asserted that the cut open peach with the pit in the center and the red pulp surrounding it look like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and we should think about that and give thanks for the sacrifices He made for us so we could enjoy our lunch.

Grandmothers can be weird like that.

Whatever sting my cousin felt in the back of his head dissolved into the place where our laughter fell suddenly silent as all eyes were focused on a glimpse of the heavenly banquet in which we were about to partake and which we were absolutely certain awaited us all.

On the tray was a gloriously golden round loaf of freshly baked bread - still warm from my grandmother's oven, all crusty on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth soft on the inside - a large slab of pale yellow butter on one of her delicate blue print china plates, a huge matching blue print pot of tea, and a matching print bowl of sugar and a pitcher of milk.

From the back of the tie in her apron, a large knife would magically appear and we would watch - wide-eyed and mouths gaping - as she would expertly slice the bread and give us each a generous piece to slather with butter. I can still see and smell and taste the pale yellow butter melting on the warm, soft, white bread.

Then, she would take some of the peaches out of the basket and slice them to perfection. How was it that they were warm and fuzzy on the outside and yet cool and juicy on the inside? One of the manifestations of God's amazing miracles, no doubt.

She'd hand the slices, one by one, to us, right off the knife - which drove my mother NUTZ! Oh, the dangers to which little minds were completely oblivious. We'd wait like hungry little birds in a nest, taking the slippery slice of peach, patiently building our peach sandwich.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Don't take a bite just yet! The finishing touches needed to be applied. My grandmother would dry her hands on the end of her apron before reaching into the sugar bowl to get a handful of sugar to sprinkle on top of the peaches. If you were really lucky, some of the sugar would fall onto the butter on the bread, giving it just the right "crunch".

Oh. My. Soul.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Not just yet. We all wiggled in our seats in anticipation, but how could you even think of taking a bite before offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God who had provided this amazing bounty for us, imprinted as it was with the Sacred Heart of Jesus? So, we'd close our eyes, secretly wiping the drool off the corners of our mouth, waiting for the loud AMEN.

As far as we kids were concerned, 'Amen' was 'Latin' for "Okay, kids, dig in!"

And, we did. We'd let our lips touch the warm buttered bread and the cool of the peach slice before taking a huge bite. We'd all sit there, perfectly behaved little lambs sighing in pure delight, while my grandmother fixed our cups of tea. Lots of sugar, of course, and about half tea and half milk.

There ain't nothing better than peach sandwiches and sweet tea with milk!

Well, there wasn't when I was a kid.

I confess that I haven't had a peach sandwich with sweet tea with milk in years. I think I tried it once as an adult, but store bought peaches that had been sprayed to a fairtheewell with pesticides and mass-produced bread from a factory bakery just didn't taste the same. And, nothing tastes quite like my grandmother's butter.

Of course, not all memories are as sweet. Those same peaches were also used to make peach liqueur which my father and uncles drank late into the night - after also drinking lots of homemade beer and wine and something they called "boiler makers" which was an evil concoction of beer with a shot glass of whiskey at the bottom - playing cards and getting drunk and into fights over some foolish argument about something someone said or did that everyone thought was forgotten.

To this day, I can't stand the smell or taste of beer, and as much as I love peaches, I can't go near peach liqueur, even if it's used with a dessert. 

Too many painful memories to even go there. They are best left like footprints on the sand waiting for a wave to wash them away and take them to "The Deep".

Ah, but the good memories that are stirred by a sight or sound or smell are the best.  Sometimes, I think these memories are perhaps even better than the actual, lived event.

I'm sure many scientific studies have been made on the sense-memory connection, and there's probably lots to be said about what it all means.

For me, they are little, unexpected gifts. Some I open. Others, I don't.

Some are like old friends. Some I invite in and we have a grand old time. Others, I simply stand at the door and make polite conversation until they get the hint and go away.  Still others, well, I don't even answer the knock at the door when I hear it.

One thing I know for certain, invited or not, memories will come, often triggered by one of my senses. What I do with them is my choice. My decision.

And, when a good memory comes along - like peach sandwiches and sweet tea on a  beautiful day in early summer - I am the richer for entertaining it.


Jeff @ James Hill said...

Excellent post. I have missed your writing so much and want to welcome you back from your writer's block.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Why, thanks, Jeff. I'm only posting now when I feel the spirit move.

Jeff @ James Hill said...

Then I guess I'll be needing to ask the Spirit to move you more often (or at least when I am having Elizabeth Kaeton withdrawals).

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You do that, Jeff. I'll be listening.

Sextant said...

Great post. Your choice of perfume was wise because it protected you from the Formosan subterranean termite.

Hmmm, Oreo cookies! In my brief experimentation (it was OK if you didn't inhale right?) I remember of being extremely impressed with flipping my fingers in a serial fashion creating vast insights into the spiral nature of our existential despair. Then a young lady came along, and replaced all that with the magic that young ladies seem to possess for wayward and aimless young men, although she didn't wear patchouli. The existential despair was replaced with joy and the one nickel bag that I had purchased was returned to the seller mostly untouched for free. That young lady is out in the kitchen puttering around with her St Patty's day knick knacks. Maybe not so young any more but she still has the magic. No pot or booze in 38 years.

Could you further describe that bread that your grandmother made? I found your bread musings more sensual than the love scenes in Fifty Shades of Gray. Oh I must be getting old. In any event your description of that bread was magnificent.

There was a interesting segment on Radiolab about how our memories are not really the opening of file drawers or accessing a neuronal hard disk, they are actual re-creations of the original event. We don't remember we create the event all over again in our minds. As such they are subject to some error. One of the implications being, that the less you remember an event, the more accurate your memory of that event will be. Rather paradoxical. Here is the podcast, it is 21.5 minutes long and quite interesting.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

An observation: The couples I know who met in a room where the smell of pot lingered are still married today. Hmmm....., indeed.

Not surprisingly, my grandmother made Portuguese bread. It's a lot like Italian bread except it's round. There's also Portuguese Sweet Bread which we would have for breakfast or desert. It's a cake-like bread and it, too, is best served warm and slathered with butter.

I have a friend who is a psychologist and therapist who says that the happily married older couples he knows have a direct correlation between a good sex life and a good appetite. They enjoy eating food together as much as they enjoy making love. Both can be pretty sensual. Especially if you are Portuguese.

I'll have to check out that podcast. Sounds very interesting. Thanks, Sextant.

Sextant said...


Interesting observation on the lingering fragrance of pot and long term commitment. I wonder, is there anything to that?

Can't comment on the effects of being Portuguese, I am an Irisher and she is a Johnny Bull. I kid her that the subjugation of Ireland by the British continues.

Good appetites may lead to a preference for shall we say darker bedrooms, but things still feel magnificent, and comfort the Soul. I think many couples short change themselves in that regard. Yeah you don't look like you did when you were in your 20s and yeah bad backs and bad knees limit the acrobatics, but it still is a very wonderful thing. Performance anxieties are for young folks. Older loving is more relaxed and subject to the winds of fate. Things may or may not work at the moment, take a nap together and try again in a bit and often by the grace of God, voila. Sort of like two old friends taking a stroll while wearing very comfortable shoes.

In your 20s, you MAKE love. In your 60s, you make LOVE. Both are Divine in their own sort of way.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - I couldn't agree more. I note that I also eat more slowly now and have a greater appreciation for presentation, a variety of combinations of textures and tastes. I also savor a glass of wine - one with a meal is just fine, rather than gulping down two or three. And, no cheap wine. If I'm going to have a glass of wine, I will pay for a good one and savor it. When served a cheap glass of white wine, I'll add some sparkling water to it and make it a spritzer. Tastes much better than the cheap wine and I just tell my host I'm cutting down on alcohol.

I think the gastronomical equivalent to "MAKE love vs. make LOVE" is "MAKE a meal vs. make a MEAL."

I think I saw a movie about this once. French. (Of course). It was wonderful. I just can't remember the name of it. Le sigh. One of the hazards of growing older.

Although, I do remember something George Burns said about having sex after age 90. He said it was like shooting pool with a rope.

We both have a few years before that becomes an issue.

Well, we can lose our memory and our physical abilities as long as we don't lose our ability to laugh.

Bex said...

Was the movie "Babette's Feast"? If so, it's worth seeing again. If not, rent and enjoy!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - Yup. That's it. I think I'll check it out on Netflix.

Sextant said...

Wine, a great sadness in my life. I love looking at it, learning about it, testing the bouquet, testing the legs, shopping for it, fiddling with it. Alas I can't drink it. I get a headache.

The only exception is Gallo industrial grade made in a factory White Zinfandel. Love the stuff, but figure I really should stay away from it having MS.

George could be right, but there are alternate engineering solutions to all problems. And no they don't involve sitting in bath tubs watching sunsets or dancing. I have often wondered about that.