by Toyin Adeyemi
June 10, 2017
© Sara Zin, www.sarazingallery.com/about
“Don’t forget that memory is like salt: the right amount brings out the flavour; too much ruins it.” –Paulo Coelho
Christian has set out to capture two of the most evocative flavours from his childhood: maple syrup and a certain tea.
“Not just any tea,” he says,” smiling. He leans back in his chair. “I’ve never tasted anything like it. Not since that day.”
He ribbons maple syrup onto his breakfast a few times a year. Often enough to summon memories of weekend breakfasts in his childhood home.
“There is something about wanting to revisit aging memories through triggers like flavour, music, and scents,” he says. “You take a sip or a bite of something, and suddenly your brain is guiding you back to the old, original encounter with that thing, opening a sensory pathway to connect past with present.”
Christian worries about displacing the original memory with newer encounters with maple syrup. He minimizes risk by eating it only a few times every year, because the original memory feels more pleasant: fluffy pancakes, crisp around the edges, striated with warm, golden syrup; the comically sticky face of his younger brother; the happy, reassuring chatter of family and friends close by.
Then there’s the tea, which is different. A heartbreaker. It escapes Christian every time, but he claims he’ll never give up on it.
“Proust’s guy had his madeleine,” he says, referring to a character in Alfred Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time. “I’ll have my tea.” He pounds the table softly with his fist, watching for my reaction.
I study him for a moment. Christian studies me back. Soon he’s blushing, blinking quickly, and for reasons I cannot clearly explain, rooted in some undercurrent of feeling, we burst out laughing.
Christian, a medical resident in New York, is originally from Toronto. We met only yesterday, weeks after a mutual friend suggested we meet to discuss a subject that interests me, sensations and memory. Now we’re sitting in the dim light of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, dipping a croissant into apricot preserve (Christian) and spooning up tiramisu (me).
He talks about being nine-years-old, attending a playdate after school. It was a typically cold Toronto winter day in the 90’s. He’d trudged through snow with two other boys before settling by his friend’s fireplace. At some point, his friend’s mother entered the room with mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits, setting a child’s memory into motion.
Christian remembers fragrant steam curling from his cup, the light buff-brownness of the tea and the ripples he blew across its surface. The other boys laughed at his caution.
He describes its flavour: a mildly sweet, milky ceylon with a fruity aftertaste and a texture like silk. Christian drank more, and more still. And when he finished, that cup became an insurmountable pleasure.
His mouth clamps around that memory. Nothing left to say.
No cup has ever come close, but he keeps trying to reproduce it. It’s his Sisyphean feat.
We finish our desserts and walk down the gritty sidewalk of Amsterdam Avenue.
I say, “Coehlo thinks that thinking too much about a memory can change it. Maybe you’ve had your tea all along.”
We walk for many blocks in silence before he replies, smiling again. “No, it’s that the thing that escapes you is the one you can keep pining after.”