Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Carnivory and Memory

I had an odd fragrance-induced flashback on Friday. It’s pretty well accepted that aromas are linked to memory—in literature, from Proust to Primo Levi, and in neuroscience, which shows us the very direct wiring between the parts of our brains that handle scent and memory.

I was in Chicago, accompanying the Real Doctor at the AAO meeting. Chicago is large enough and immigrant enough that it still has a relatively thriving kosher deli scene. I say “relatively thriving”, not absolutely thriving like the markets catering to the more recent waves of immigrants from southeast Asia or Latin America. “Relatively thriving” means not dead. There’s actually a half-dozen, so you can see competition, and people have favorites. The Real Doctor and I eat meat rarely, even though Trader Joe’s has kosher chicken and the like—we tend to save carnivory for a treat, when we’re in a place where we can get really, really good kosher pastrami.

So, my mission was to go and get the pastrami while the Real Doctor did Real Doctor stuff. It was quite a schlep. We are staying at a B&B that is south, in the heart of White Sox territory. All the surviving kosher delis are way up north, beyond Cubs territory. I walked with the Real Doctor the three miles to her convention at McCormick Place, then the seven blocks to the Red Line, then rode the Red Line to its last stop, then walked the six more blocks to Romanian Kosher Sausage Company. I filled a bag with some delicious traditional pastrami, some Romanian style pastrami (when in Romanian Sausage Company, do as the Romanians…), roast beef and dry salami, then started the trudge back. This was around two PM.

After a brief ride on the Red Line carrying my bag of delicatessen, I met the Real Doctor downtown. We visited Michael Darnton at his workshop, and chatted for a bit. We had to kill a bit of time—the Real Doctor had a fancy dinner to go to at six—so we wandered around a bit, and washed up at a Starbucks, as much for the wireless access and a restroom as for the liquids. Refreshed (and up-to-date), we decided to hoof it the two miles to the fancy restaurant. Having dropped the Real Doctor off in the care of drug reps, I decided to hoof it back to the train, still carrying the increasingly fragrant bag of delicatessen. I got a bit muddled by the arrangement of stations in The Loop area downtown, so I probably trudged a mile more than necessary, but I did eventually find the southbound Orange line. From the final station, it was less than a mile back to our rooms. By this time, the bag of food was fragrant indeed; I was surprised that I was not accompanied from the station by a train of neighborhood dogs and cats.

This all reminded me of a similar fragrant trudge through a strange city, back when I was 13. I can’t remember if it was Kuala Lumpur, Penang, or Singapore, but if you go to a hotel in any one of those cities, you’ll see signs politely asking visitors to refrain from taking durians on the elevators. Our Malaysian host told us about durians, remarkable fruit the size of a rugby ball completely covered in stocky green thorns. They are famous for their intense odor, reminiscent of a sack of onions that have been left to rot in a football team’s laundry. The fruit, though, is enough to send Malays into ecstasy. So we had to try one, despite our host’s admonitions and the fact that the season had just barely started.

We left the hotel, and set out for a day’s walking around the city. Early on, we spotted a market that had durians, so we bought a small one. With the skin intact, it was still pretty aromatic. So, we popped into a plastic bag. After walking around a while, the smell was quite noticeable. So, my dad wrapped the plastic bag containing the durian in a newspaper, then put that in a plastic bag. After a little more walking around, the smell was getting noticeable, so another newspaper and another plastic bag were deployed. It was not long before the situation was out of hand—so rather than taking the fruit back to the hotel, we found a park, and my dad did his best to dismember the fruit with a penknife.

The smell of the durian is memorable, practically leaving a scar on the nose. Walking around an Asian city with a smelly durian leaves memories easily brought up by walking around Chicago with a bag of fragrant pastrami. But sadly, I have no memory whatsoever of the taste of durian—none of us tried more than a nibble, then we wrapped it up in layers of newspaper and plastic, and deposited it in a garbage bin.

Happily, though, I am about to sit down to a delicious pastrami sandwich, the memory of which is probably going to have to hold me for a year.

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