Grant Achatz, chef owner of Alinea in Chicago, was correct. Considered a demigod in the culinary scene - uber meister of chemical gastronomy and avant garde presentations - Achatz once said in a Netflix documentary that “the small real estate of the mouth… so much is riding on what happens inside…what chemistry is there is deep memories to access.”
Eating food that evokes happy warm memories is called the “ratatouille effect”. The phrase came from the Disney movie “Ratatouille” where a harsh food critic gave a Paris restaurant raving reviews because its ratatouille brought back childhood memories of his mother’s cooking.
Last October I tried to recreate the ratatouille effect by eating fish tacos from four different places in one day. The memory I was trying to recreate was eating fish tacos at Via- Mar Seafood Restaurant in Los Angeles
Via-Mar is a small eatery in North Figueroa Street at Highland Park, a working class neighborhood in northeast Los Angeles, population 70-80 percent Latino. Gentrified “North Fig” is home to artists and trendy shops mixed with older establishments like Via-Mar. At Via-Mar you order from an outside window - it can be cold in the winter, warm in the summer. There is a covered patio on the side where you eat your food from a foam plate. Nothing fancy about this place. Some tables are greasy, some have not been cleared.
Via-Mar is a favorite pit stop for workers. I especially notice many working Latino men spilling out of trucks and vans. Angelenos love their fish tacos, ceviches and tostadas – they are cheap, quick and yummy good.
I first had fish tacos at Via-Mar a few years ago during a fragile time in my life when I was starting to venture out on my own. The first bite was heavenly. I was
surprised at how much I loved them, even though I am not used to hot and spicy food. The corn tortillas were overflowing and hard to hold. One bite and your cheeks (I have a small face so my nose also) are dotted with bits of cabbage, sauce and fish. There is no way to eat them neatly. I felt like a pig in lovely mud – dive in, get dirty, soak in the goodness of its flavors. Aaahhhhhh.
Classes on Guam were cancelled on October 6 last year due to an impending storm. The storm fizzled, which made for perfect weather – a bit rainy and quite windy. Walking in the gentle rain without an umbrella was refreshing, and the wind was strong enough to sweep your hair up and away from your head. Like holding your face near a restroom blower. (Not that I’ve done it myself.) Great setting for recreating a food memory.
My first stop was Caliente in Hagatna. For $5.75 I had two crunchy beer battered fish tacos topped with grated cabbage with cilantro sauce. There was a good crowd but I got my tacos very quickly. The sauce was creamy and slightly sweet. I drove further down south to Marina Grill. They served three tacos for $15; it had denanche sauce, a local twist. Marina’s tacos were bigger, hotter and spicier. It was great to eat within earshot of the water smashing on the rocks by the shore. I headed back north to Dusit Thani’s Tasi Grill. Three standard taco fare, tasty, and again, you have a million-dollar view. I walked down to Tumon Tacos next door. Their cilantro sauce was creamy and flavorful, and they provided chilis and lime on the side. They also provided a wrapper to make it easier to eat your fish taco.
Did I have a ratatouille moment on that rainy fish taco day? Well, sort of. Somewhat.
I enjoyed my fish taco adventure. (I have since sampled fish taco at Mosas, Poki Fry and Carmen’s.) I felt brave driving down south alone. One of my goals in eating out alone regularly is to get used to saying “one, just one” when a server asks me how many people are dining. I have gotten used to it since – I no longer bat an eyelash when I say it. But in reaching back for my Via-Mar memory, I unexpectedly pulled up other, deeper memories. On that marathon fish taco eating day I also remembered over two decades of saying “two, two please.” On that fateful day, I could not escape the memory of a departed loved one who loved – enjoyed, adored, thrived, prayed for, was overjoyed and ecstatic with - rainy weather. Every drop of gentle rain whispered his name.
We are complex beings, and our memories are connected to each other in deep, labyrinthine ways. As I try to eat my way through building new memories I need to learn to be grateful for and not to do violence to old memories when they rise to the surface. I need to feel safe gently pulling up those beautiful deep memories. I need to have faith that God will help me use them – no matter how painful in the remembrance - as rack and pinions for moving forward to new ones.
In the Bible, an angel of the Lord appeared to the weary prophet Elijah and said “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” (1 Kings 19:7.) I, too, will arise and continue to eat. The journey ahead is great still.
Jeni Ann Flores is an educator, blogger and freelance writer. You may read more of her writing at https://teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com/