Grateful for the taste of memory

I was listening to a conversation in a coffee shop the other day where several people were discussing the taste of food (I confess; I was eavesdropping).
One person was saying he didn’t like his partner’s potato salad. “It has all the ingredients of your mother’s potato salad,” she replied with a hint of frustration, and proceeded to list the ingredients one by one: eggs, radish, bit of dry mustard, mayo, and so on.
The others at the table nodded as though this conversation was going to solve world peace or the lack thereof.
“I can’t explain it,” he said to her, his hands open and with a shrug of his shoulders.
I wanted to pull my chair up to their table and talk about the taste of memory.
I make a mean lemon pie and at times it is so tart that my guests wince. I use fresh lemons, sometimes doubling my grandmother’s recipe.
Years ago, I served my lemon pie to a friend who had just lost his mother. I made him a lemon pie because it was his favourite; a fact he had mentioned many times over the years of our friendship.
The result of my gesture surprised me.
We had our dinner and lingered over conversation while I cleared away the main course dishes and sliced the pie. My friend took a few bites and then pushed the plate aside, apologizing for his rudeness. I was curious.
“Too tart,” I asked?
He shook his head and reluctantly explained. His mother made her lemon pie not from fresh lemons but from a box of Shirriff Lemon Pie Filling.
He had grown up watching her open the Shirriff pie-filling box, had helped her stir the concoction as it heated and thickened on the stove, and then he licked the remnants of the pie filling off the spatula after she had poured it into her pie crust.
His yearning for lemon pie had very little do with flavour but was all about memory. My lemon pie, though reasonably tasty, did not match his taste of memory.
My efforts may not have satisfied his longing for lemon pie, but it did fill the conversation with memories; the long list of positive influences his mother had been in his life.
My mother was a meat-and-potatoes kind of cook, as most women were of that day. She was teased for having a 101 recipes using ground beef and Sloppy Joes was one of my favourites.
I don’t often make it but when I do, I’m that little kid sitting at my mother’s table, my chair pulled in tight as she places the plate in front of me with a hamburger bun filled with her version of Sloppy Joes.
I have made the same simple recipe for my family when they were growing up, and without exception they rolled up their noses and were not impressed.
Sloppy Joes taste like Thursday to me; that’s when my mother made it, when she was running late, her day filled to the brim with responsibilities.
She let me chop the celery as long as I was careful with the knife and cut the stalks into tidy small pieces. She let me stir in the ketchup and mustard and the can of chicken gumbo soup.
It may not have been a nutritious meal by today’s standard, but just thinking about it conjures up the flavour and the smell and the image of my mother standing at the stove—her customary apron tied around her waist.
And I am grateful for Sloppy Joes.