Foodstuff: Credit where credit is due

If food contains memories, it’s the people who make them last

Patty Williams holds up a plate of meatballs at PlumpJack Cafe in Olympic Valley, California.
Kaya Williams/Aspen Times Weekly

I’m beginning to wonder if I might give food too much of the credit sometimes.

With such certainty, I have granted dishes and ingredients the power to seduce, to remind us of our mortality, to bring back bygone eras and resurrect the dead and nourish us spiritually as much as physically; I have attributed the aches of love and homesickness and nostalgia to meals more than anything else.

This column was supposed to emphasize that ethos as much as all the others, and the photos that accompany it here reflect that. I had intended to write about comfort food, and how the rich, hearty meals I ate during a visit home to Tahoe for a friend’s memorial last weekend brought some savory solace during the kind of reunion that I wish didn’t happen at all, ever.

But I’m not sure I would even remember what I had eaten were it not for the photos I shot at a couple of dinners out. When I tried thinking of the food that I ate but did not document, I came up mostly blank; it took several hours for me to recall the mushroom ravioli and asparagus I had on my last dinner at home before heading back to Aspen.

A veggie rice bowl from the sushi restaurant Drunken Monkey in Truckee, California.
Kaya Williams/Aspen Times Weekly

What I did remember was sitting across from my mom at our favorite sushi place and, for the first time, eating the rice bowl that had been a pandemic takeout staple inside the restaurant we had so often ordered from. I loved it, but not so much for the way the flavors reminded me of summers on the deck but for the way eating it with my mom across from me at the table meant I was home with people who I loved and who loved me.

I remember the stops at my favorite bakery not so much for the pastries and coffees but for the way driving there meant spending time in the car with my parents, shooting the breeze on the roads I used to see every day. It was the excursion more than the order that made the day sweeter for the people I got to go there with.

I remember the dinner after the memorial at one of our family’s favorite restaurants only partly for the soup and the fish and the two kinds of mousse for dessert. What stuck to my ribs was the way we were all around the same table, and the way we found ways to joke about the menu, and the way I bumped into my friend’s dad on the way out and got to give him one more hug in an afternoon filled with embraces. A big, hard, human squeeze brings the kind of warmth that even the most familiar flavors can’t summon on their own.

Butternut squash soup at PlumpJack Cafe in Olympic Valley, California.
Kaya Williams/Aspen Times Weekly

None of this is a discredit to the meals and pastries that I ate in the six days I spent at home, all of which were surely as rich and hearty as a column on comfort food probably would have evoked. Those places we dined out had become favorites for good reason, and the foods we shared did remind me still of fond memories tied to eating (and, sometimes, eating in excess).

But food, I’m realizing, depends on context as much as just about anything else. The more I thought about my most memorable meals, the more I saw that they were memorable for the people I ate them with and the environment I ate them in. And the more I tried to link food to comfort, the more I recognized that feeling came from intangible senses as much as taste and smell.

Mahi mahi at PlumpJack Cafe in Olympic Valley, California.
Kaya Williams/Aspen Times Weekly

I’ve been so quick to attribute memories to flavors that I think I sometimes forget that it’s people who create those flavors, and that it’s people who ensure that those memories are lasting ones.

It’s highly unlikely that I’ll stop putting food on the pedestal any time soon, or ever for that matter — this is a food column, after all — but I think it’s high time I give the cooks and the eaters some of the credit, too.

Raspberry mousse at PlumpJack Cafe in Olympic Valley, California.
Kaya Williams/Aspen Times Weekly
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