My first memory of food is the White Castle in Louisville, 20 miniature hamburgers for a dollar. I was 4, and the aroma — onions grilled in suet, then plopped with a tiny steamed beef patty inside a miniature square bun, in tiny white boxes, all bagged — was heavenly. At the age of 5, we moved to Tucson, and while there are many taste memories from the Southwest, I didn’t have White Castle again for years.
Burger purists, like those at www.ahamburgertoday.com, despise White Castle. On the East Coast, they are called “sliders” and have about as much social cachet as Taco Bell. They are, after all, not true hamburgers: The meat is steamed over minced onions, not grilled or broiled, and, well, it’s not exactly ground beef — it seems to be mixed with beef broth and maybe mayonnaise (there are numerous recipes online), and the patty comes out less than 1/4 inch thick, 3 inches per side. Needless to say, it takes a bunch to make a meal.
But that magical memory/flavor/aroma stuck in my brain, and when I finally found a White Castle in the early ’60s — not in Manhattan, but on a grimy highway deep in The Bronx — it was exactly as I’d remembered it. It had nothing to do with my preference for rare ground chuck, and other ingredients I consider to be critical to a great burger. It wasn’t a great burger: It was White Castle, and yes, I happily devoured five or six.
The point of this is that I think that childhood memories of food are the most accurate early memories we have. The persistence of early memory is important in this day and age, where corporate megaliths control much of what we consume. For instance, I am old enough to remember when Coca-Cola was made without corn syrup. “What difference does that make?” you might ask.
Well, corn syrup is something most people under 60 have been subjected to all their lives. It’s a glucose derived from processing cornstarch, and much cheaper than sucrose (made from sugar cane or beets), galactos (from milk) or fructose (from honey, fruits and vegetables, the sweetest naturally occurring sugar, about twice as sweet as sucrose), which were the predominant sweeteners back when Coke was competing with colas like Pepsi and R.C.
Cokes were tangier and less saccharine in the 1950s, with a strong citric component, a thirst-quenching edge. But having captured the market, the company turned to lower manufacturing costs to generate more profit. Now all major soft drinks use corn syrup.
Corn syrup has a different flavor from other sugars. There is an aftertaste, a kind of odd back-of-the-tongue off-flavor, which is why you are often tempted, despite being full, to take another sip — subliminally you are trying to get rid of that aftertaste.
Sucrose doesn’t have an aftertaste, but it’s not as intense as corn syrup, so it takes more to achieve the same sweetness affect. As I said, corn syrup is cheap. That’s why Boylan’s and Virgil’s root beers are much more expensive than Hires, A&W, Mug, IBC and Dad’s. In some countries, sucrose is still used in soft drinks, which explains the legend of Mexican Coke (in fact, some Mexican Coke is now made with corn syrup).
Corn syrup has been around for decades (that’s what Karo is), but high fructose corn syrup was perfected by Japanese chemists in the 1960s, and has gradually found its way into most commercial food products. The list is vast, and includes all the major beverages and desserts, as well as stuff from canned soup to crackers, plus a lot you’d never imagine. Like beer.
On my way back from Stanford to Tucson in 1959, I drove through the Mojave Desert in mid-afternoon. It was only May, but the heat was relentless. There was no air conditioning in my ancient Nash, my drinking water had long since turned tepid, and I stopped at a beat-up shack in the middle of nowhere. Out front was a sign: Ice Cold Beer. There I had a long-neck Budweiser, which was absolute heaven: cold, bitter and refreshing. I’m not particularly a beer person, and what with one thing and another, I didn’t taste Budweiser again for another 10 years. When I did, it was awful — full of corn syrup. Over the intervening decade, manufacturers had discovered via market research that the average beer drinker could be seduced by sweetness. Of course, this is not acknowledged. Real men, after all, don’t drink sugared beer. Except they do. (They just don’t know it.)
Where was I? Oh yeah, childhood memories being more accurate when it comes to food. I remember the original V8. It was very sour, tangy, a flavor I later learned came from sauerkraut juice. Fabulous! But V8 had a very small market niche, and in 1948 they were bought by Campbell, who gradually eliminated the sauerkraut juice ingredient. Now, V8 might as well be V-1, because there’s almost no flavor left except tomato. So we save the juice from Clausen or Bubbies sauerkraut, and when we have enough, we add an equal amount of tomato juice, and enjoy it on a Sunday morning.
In Tucson, that summer of ’59, I visited the restaurant where my romance with Mexican cooking had begun nearly 15 years before. Mrs. Ronquillo remembered me, and when I asked for her recipe for guacamole (this was long before “avocado dip” was known nationally), she kindly provided it: avocado, grated onion, lime juice and salt. But something was different when I made it myself. It was good, but not the same. Over the years I tried things to recapture the flavor. What secret ingredient had she “forgotten” to give me? I experimented with oils, spices, tomato paste, cilantro — still not right. Finally I came upon it. For each avocado, she pressed a small clove of garlic!
My wife had a wealthy grandmother who took her to dinner at The Concordia, an exclusive Pittsburgh country club, and her abiding memory is of the best creamed spinach ever. We’ve worked to duplicate the recipe (finely chopped spinach, sieved yolk of boiled egg, and a simple béchamel sauce, with a dash of fresh lemon juice before serving), and it is the perfect accompaniment to lamb chops.
This search for childhood flavors is important, because while our tastes expand for various reasons (peer pressure, for instance — remember how harsh that first burning quaff of tequila was? Or how yucky the first raw oyster?), it has been proven that the period of highest sensitivity to flavors is before age 9. It is also true that a tendency to like sour flavors is an indicator of an adventurous palate ( Oxford Journal of Chemical Senses, 2003), and my favorite candy was not M&Ms or Milk Duds but lemon drops.
So we should trust our early taste memories. Reclaiming these memories may yet save us from a world where clear, bright flavors have surrendered to convenience, and, shackled by instant entrees and pre-packaged salads, are marched away to the gulag of fast food.
But what about today’s children? How, in a world where fake food dominates the media, are they to develop the taste memories that will make them discriminating and food-savvy adults?