When I was young, we lived in a barrio neighborhood in an Arizona border town. My 4-year-old brother hung out with a pretty 3-year-old named Rosalinda, who lived across the street. My sister often hung out inside with a book. But I prowled the neighborhood. My mild Montana-by-way-of-Iowa upbringing had not prepared me for such things as scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes. These were scary. But the subdued, complex beauty of the Sonora Desert always drew me outside.
Late in the afternoons in summers we were introduced to another element in our new home. Rain-blue thunderclouds would gather overhead and the ferocious storms we referred to as “monsoons” would turn the unpaved street in front of our house into a torrent of light brown mud. As suddenly as they began, these rambunctious storms would stop. The sun would come out. Soon, a warm, powerful scent would rise up from the desert floor, filling not just our nostrils but our imaginations. Later, I would learn that wet creosote and acacia bushes imparted much of the scent. But damp earth and all that it harbored, was part of the romance, too. For it was a romantic scent. It brought tears to my eyes when, after a long time away, I’d catch the first whiff of desert as the door to my arriving airplane was flung open on a summer’s evening. Visiting, I would yearn as much for this scent as I did for glimpses of home.
But what does this have to do with food?
I’ll answer my own question by saying that all of the senses are involved when a place in time, or a place in the desert or a place in the wilderness becomes iconic in our memories. When it comes to taste, we don’t just remember a flavor, but we add a backdrop: sitting in our grandmother’s kitchen, sitting in the sun on her wooden chair. Focusing in more closely on day to day things, think of picking up the most perfect strawberry in the basket. We look at it and appreciate the pure crimsonness of it. We handle it, feel the grainy roughness of the seeds, catch the aroma, then take in a bite anticipating that exquisite red berry taste. All of the senses are engaged.
Sensory pleasure is the great equalizer. It is as available to simple folk as it is to rock stars or rocket scientists. Money is not required to develop a good palate or to appreciate a well-made meal or anticipate a taste that only summer can bring. Or, even to summer at a particular location — say, beneath a sprawling tree on an Iowa farm, gathering fresh morels. Or, your uncle’s backyard grill in San Antonio, with billowing savory meat-scented smoke right at your nose.
During the year we lived on the unpaved street in Nogales my senses were on full alert to the new sounds, scents and flavors. Yes, I had to learn to shake my shoes in the morning to be sure no critters had crawled inside during the night. But I also could, on certain evenings, stand in a neighborhood friend’s backyard while his mom cooked tortillas on a comal set over a fire in an old oil drum. Nothing had ever been quite like this – the black spots where the tortilla would burn a little, its pliable softness, and its incomparable taste when drizzled with honey.
In a few years my explorations would take me across the border to Nogales, Sonora. I sought out backstreet places selling hot, fragrant corn tortillas in tall stacks, wrapped up tight in white paper; I looked for the small shops that carried homemade, stretchy cheese to go on those tortillas. I’d stop into a shabby hotel and make my way back to the kitchen, run by a Chinese family, where I could order the absolute best chicken tacos in the city. I learned the difference between mayonnaise and Mexican crema (barely even related, except in appearance).
Our senses awaken to that which is new. They are dulled by the steady thump of the ordinary. We forget that they are given us as a birthright, as tools for our explorations. Even those missing one or another of the senses, sight or hearing, often are compensated by having another one sharpen. We are the ones who ultimately decide whether we’re going to use and appreciate them, or misuse and lose them.
In the realm of taste, it doesn’t mean seeking out more and more extraordinary flavors or more expensive items off restaurant menus, or more exotic locales in which to dine. A few evenings ago, as we watched a movie, my husband left the room, returning minutes later with freshly popped popcorn in a steel bowl. I might have had microwave popcorn at work sometime over the past year or stunningly overpriced, lukewarm popcorn at a movie theater. But this was really good popcorn. As I put my face down toward the bowl to inhale the buttery scent, the warmth of it came up at me like breath. A simple thing, but oh, so good.