x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

I'm a reluctant food sentimentalist

Memory, says Nouf Al-Qasimi, is both sweet reverie and bitter pill.

Awell-stocked grocery store is a great place to kill time, second only to memory lane, which has additional benefits such as a zero carbon footprint and the absence of a dress code. As Frank Zappa said: "It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia."

Sentimentality, a word that once reminded me of cheap perfume, is the most primal form of recollection. Though it lacks the complications of longing that come with nostalgia, it's still the reason I can't listen to Jim Croce, smell L'air du Temps, or eat buttered basmati rice without getting choked up. When you're flooded with the past, it acts as a filter.

The process by which my brain makes memories often starts with a taste or an aftertaste. Maybe it's my blood chemistry or the time of year, but these days, there's no underestimating the transportive power of the senses. Proust's iconic madeleine would have crumbled into literary sediment if it hadn't found a place to flourish in the collective consciousness of his readers.

If distance were a dish, what would it taste like? How about sadness and joy? The hothouse cucumbers I buy in the US are slender and sweet, but when I visit my Lebanese cousins, their home-grown varieties are bitter, astringent and thorny with hairs. Still, they taste like summer to me, and I love them.

Good times also taste like vinaigrette. My uncle is the salad master. All his nieces and nephews were raised on his signature dressing, a claggy and assertive muddle of garlic, shallots, salty soy and sweet maple swirled into good Lebanese olive oil. He dresses the greens heavily and is generous with the tomatoes.

And I associate the drive to the Abu Dhabi airport with heartburn and heartache. My mother stockpiles chilli pickles while I am visiting and I have a tendency to ignore them until the last night, when I finish them off, mechanically and melancholically, like vitamins for my spirit.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore is a jewel I discovered in 1995, soon after it was first published. On the brink of 14, I was already racked with a kind of anticipatory nostalgia for things in life I feared I would never get to experience because the world felt too big and out of control. Moore's novella is the story of memory with notes on loneliness and longing, girlhood and disappointment, memory and reality, and the tenuous relationship between happiness and hope. It is told from the perspective of a woman named Berie, who finds herself with a lot of time on her hands in Paris while her husband, from whom she feels increasingly estranged, attends a medical conference.

Wandering around the city alone, Berie discovers a pastry called divorcé, which she eats daily with an urgent and ironic yearning. A divorcé consists of two choux pastry puffs held together by a placid, neutral cream filling. One choux puff is filled with silky dark chocolate custard and the other is discordantly - or perhaps harmoniously - filled with coffee custard.

It's certainly true that nostalgia is counterproductive - at least the way I enjoy it. Rumination and diligence tend to be combative. It's hard to pay attention to what's right in front of you if your eyes are fixed on the rear-view mirror. Some people wear their heart on their sleeves; I wear mine in my mouth.

Nouf Al Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico