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From my seat at the kitchen table, I watched my mother pick up a bright red pepper from her baking sheet, its skin shrivelled and scorched in several places after being roasted in the oven for nearly an hour. She held it from its bottom with both hands over a large glass bowl, and gently tore it in half. Warm pepper juice poured into the bowl along with some seeds that she would remove later. She peeled off the burned skin, and broke apart the flesh into pieces, which she also placed into the bowl.
My mother, who came to America from Taiwan in her late twenties, learned how to roast peppers from my Nana, my father’s mother, an Italian-American who grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Nana moved later to Brooklyn once Chinatown had enveloped her neighbourhood.
In the 1980s, Nana taught my mother the secret to excellent roasted peppers: soak them in their juices in jars, and don’t add any olive oil until you take them out to serve. Some pepper-filled jars went into the freezer and were thawed out before company came over. Others went into the fridge. My mother prepared peppers on this particular night for what she referred to as “a luxurious snack,” the remaining ingredients for which we would obtain the next day.
I kept my mother company in the kitchen as she peeled peppers and talked about Taiwanese bubble tea, and how there was nothing like that here. Prior to the car accident that broke my spine and introduced me to my wheelchair, I had paid little attention to my mother’s stories. What good was it to me that my favourite bubble tea was inferior to that of a shop in Taipei?
After the accident though, I paid attention to my mother’s stories, having nowhere else to go, and realising that they were often tied to her happy memories. She spoke animatedly about food, and I could eat vicariously through her past experiences.
My mother described food from businesses that closed decades ago. These places, she said, sold the best hot chocolate, the freshest Italian bread, the tastiest anything. She could tell upon eating a particular item from a new shop how it compared to a store from her memory. Often, the new businesses fell short.
I tended to believe my mother’s assessment of new shops, for her sense of taste was astute. She could tell when the Danish bakery in my neighbourhood slacked on their doughnut-making, when the brand of tofu changed at the local Japanese restaurant, and when my sister and I had snuck cookies into the house and eaten them while she was at work. We even tried to cover the cookies’ buttery scent by brewing Earl Grey tea, but our efforts failed.
With this, let me introduce the 40th Street mozzarella. Years before I was born, there was an Italian specialty store on 40th street in Brooklyn that sold my mother’s favourite fresh mozzarella. One day, my mother entered the store and discovered it had transformed into a Korean grocery. As my mother told me this story (which she had done at least a dozen times before), she described her heartbreak by emphatically swinging her hand from her chest downwards. Clearly, she had learned more than cooking from Nana.
Because my mother spent so much time preparing roasted peppers, our luxurious snack required accompaniments of a similar calibre. This meant that we needed bread from one of a few acceptable places. My mother’s once favourite bakery had done something worse than close: it had declined in quality.
We also needed cheese. After years of searching, one particular shop sold a cheese that my mother said closely resembled her beloved 40th Street mozzarella. Except that it wasn’t mozzarella; it was burrata. It appeared the same until you cut it. Once an incision was made, a glorious stream of milk and soft cheese pours forth, and it begged to be spread on bread.
This shop was located in Chinatown. The specialty Italian store that Nana grew up around the corner from was still there.
I remembered Chinatown as the neighbourhood that smelled of seafood. Merchants sold live fish and frogs that wiggled around in plastic buckets or deep square containers in front of their stores. I remember as a child once seeing a fish placed in a plastic bag, where it flopped its last breaths. The man held his dying fish in the bag as he made his way down the narrow sidewalk, and I had to duck to avoid being hit in the face. Dead fish also laid on ice inside the store. When the ice melted, the fishy water found its way out of the store and down the pavement.
I had not been to Chinatown since then, and dreaded the idea of wheeling through fish water. I also recalled broken curb cuts near mysteriously green puddles that reeked of garbage. If these liquids found their way onto my tires, my chair would smell for days. My mother said that we would drive there instead. It meant a lot that she was willing to fight traffic in Manhattan for me. She could have gone on the subway alone, but she enjoyed the company, as did I.
The day after the peppers\ roasting, we made our burrata pilgrimage. On the way, I noticed that the broken curb had been fixed. New, trendy-looking businesses had taken root on the narrow streets. Both the neighbourhood and I had changed.
Upon entering the store, we were greeted with the smell of pungent cheese. Preoccupied with the selection of dried meats hanging from the ceiling, I forgot to take a number from a reel of tickets that we passed. Eventually, we grabbed a ticket and waited while I tried not to wheel over other customers’ feet. We purchased burrata and some Parmesan. My mother ordered sheep’s milk ricotta, but they were out. The man behind the tall counter said the sheep were stressed in the summer and could not produce milk. Not wanting to argue with this man’s husbandry lesson, we paid for our cheese and left.
Once home, my mother assembled our snack. She arranged the red, orange, and yellow roasted pepper slices on a large plate around the burrata, drizzled some olive oil over it, and sprinkled it with chopped fresh basil. I cut the burrata and watched its milky innards mix with the bright pepper juices and the olive oil.
This luxurious snack is a taste of my family’s history. I taste what my Nana taught my mother, which she has in turn taught me. I taste the memory of the long gone 40th Street mozzarella. Food is time travel, and sometimes I am fortunate enough to savour something that is in danger of getting lost in history. As long as I can, I will savour its memory.