The smell of memory

This week’s #ThrowbackThursday is brought to you by Colombia. I was supposed to be at my home-away-from-home when COVID-19 really ramped up, and I’ve been following news of Colombia more frequently lately, trying to get my fix in any way I can. This has me thinking about this piece of journaling from 2009.

San Francisco

As we round the rocky tumble of mountain struggling to meet up with the Andes, the buildings of San Francisco come poking up into view. Orange and vibrant among the greenery of banana trees and coffee farms, the rough ceramic roofs are scattered like tile chips abandoned and alone. As the chips become streets and homes and tiendas, I feel the rush of excitement that sometimes comes when reconnecting with the past. San Francisco is just 30 minutes (by car or an hour by bus) from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.  It’s a farm town, and it is just as much a part of me as the rural Nebraska farm town I once called home.

Even though the town is surrounded by mountains and is sinking into a riverbed somewhere below, it is hot here. Tropical, one could say.   The old road has been washed away by torrential rainfall several times, and even this road, paved and “new” is cracking and yawning in several places along the way.  I roll down my window get a better view of the first waterfall, and before I even see its streets, I can smell the town — and my childhood.

The memory is wet and fragrant, all sun-dappled green leaves and wet black earth. In contrast to the wind-beaten grit of sand and dirt blown dry and rough during summers in Nebraska, everything here is on the verge of molding. It’s a gentle, underlying hint of decay, like something rotting in the garden, but the beauty of what’s still living pushes  past this mossy atmosphere.

As we come out of the tree cover and pull into town, edging tires around gaps in the road that eat boulders like candy, the scent all but disappears. On rough roads cobbled and dry, the scent is replaced by arepas baking on the street and chicharrónes cooling on a table. These warm scents also have a place in my past, but it’s a place that feels like not-quite-home. That first whiff…the memory floods in once, and then the moment is gone, like  all the people I once knew that made this place feel like home.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

A girl sits in the town plaza in San Francisco, Colombia.

But that scent, and the memories — the moldy smell of my abuelo’s blankets as he lay dying in his bed, or the  sweet, light hint of flowers blossoming out of sight — they put my in the past again in that moment, if only for a fleeting second.

A garden of memories

I think of my abuelita and her garden, the garden that took up half the home’s space INSIDE the walls of the home and was both backyard and living room; the garden that sprung up where the final wall of the house had crumbled away; the garden in the home  that missing a section of roof. I remember how the house always smelled like orange peels and roses, but after a heavy rain, it would take on the additional scent of ground coffee.

I used to tell my friends stories about the banana trees growing in my grandma’s house, stories too great for their their little  seven- and eight-year-old minds. A garden IN a house? A banana tree growing from the ground next to the kitchen? No way.

I didn’t need to embellish things because my adventures were always otherworldy. Nothing like abuelita’s house existed in Nebraska; there, there was nothing like Colombia and its charms.

It’s almost haunting how a place I visit every few years retains such visceral memories. Some of these are fainter than others, much like the once vivid decorative patterns etched into the limestone of cobbled streets. There were rose vines and arabesque mosaics blasted into the sidewalks outside the houses I played in in San Francisco, but now, it takes a special eye (and maybe a bit of imagination?) to see them.

Some of these faded sidewalks include chips of memory too, like playing in front of that building for entire mornings then sharing Colombiana and bread with the kids inside. I barely remember that one of the girls was even named Colombia, a memory that comes only because I remember thinking as a child it would be weird to be named “America.”

These memories, the ones of playing with friends on the street, or watching my uncle play soccer until a sweat-soaked jersey was flung up into the stands at me, have their own odors. There’s the bread and chocolate of Colombia’s house, which was also a panaderia. Tio Jose’s sweaty, smelly hugs have only be duplicated a few times, after hugging a high school boyfriend stained and tired from chasing an American football up and down a field.

This journal entry ends abruptly; did I get sidetracked? Did I get up to get an arepa? Where was I as I wrote it? I can’t remember these things lost to the 11 years since I wrote this, but I’m OK with them being gone. What’s more important are the older memories. Today, as I long for family and familiarity — in Colombia or in my Minnesota home — I’m grateful I have those older memories to return to. 

What memories sustain you right now?

Baco-chip cookies

This weekend is  BaconFest, a local fundraiser event hosted by our local roller derby team, and even though I’m not taking the bacon & maple cheesecake I’d hoped to experiment with (I didn’t experiment with anything of the sort), as I’d intended, I still have this bacon idea on the brain. And a slab ‘o meat in the fridge that needs cooked up too.

So, as experiments go, here’s the results of this one:

First, dredge 5 strips of raw bacon through gently heated brown sugar ( I zapped mine in the micro for about 20 seconds, til it was warm and sticky but not “wet.” Put your pig parts on a cookie sheet and pop into a 375 degree oven for about twenty minutes, or whatever it takes for the bacon to become crisp and carmelized. Let it cool, then snap it up into little bite-size pieces. It’s a good thing I used five strips as two of them burnt beyond that carcinogenic yumminess crispy bacon has, so I didn’t have quite as much as I wanted. Oh well.

Next I made a regular chocolate-chip cookie dough, thank you Better Homes and Gardens for your recipe.

Mix 1 1/2 sticks butter and 1/4 C. shortening. Add 1/2 C. sugar, 1 C. packed brown sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla together.

Add 3/4 tsp. baking soda and 1/2 tsp. salt.  Add 2 eggs and beat until combined. Mix in 2 1/2 C. flour, then add your chips (I used 1 C. chocolate and 1 C. white chocolate ) and then add dried cherries or cranberries (that’s not part of the BH&G recipe).  Add the bacon. If you want to add nuts, dump them in now.

Give ‘er a good mix, then spoon out onto your cookie sheet in little ball-shaped mounds.

Bake for about 8 minutes and let cool a bit on the sheet. By my estimate this recipe makes about 30  cookies.  The bacon flavor wasn’t as noticeable throughout in the cookie I sampled, but I think it would have been, had I not lost two pieces of bacon to the overzealous oven. When I did bite into that perfect  intersection of chocolate, white chocolate and bacon however, the combo was delightful.

Couscous, Crimini mushroom and Red Pepper burgers

I love making mistakes. Well, mistakes like the couscous mushroom and red pepper burgers I made last night. Yes, it was an accident, but damn if these falafel-like patties aren’t tasty.  Being someone who does eat meat, but also loves the nutrition of veggie burgers, I was planning on experimenting with couscous, mushroom and red pepper burgers when I messed up a batch of artichoke hummus.

marinated artichoke hearts

marinated artichoke hearts

My blender wasn’t cooperating with me, and the chickpeas were not pulping up as nicely as I wanted them to. So with chunks of chickpea staring me down, I combined the mash, the red peppers and mushrooms I already had cooked, and some couscous hanging out in my fridge. Yes, that’s right, I added leftover couscous to this stuff too.  I wanted to use all of these leftovers, and had it turned out terribly—or not at all—all of these foodstuffs would have gone in the trash. Which I hate.END OF AUGUST 016

I didn’t use any egg as a binding agent, so these patties were threatening to fall apart in the pan as I cooked them, but they did stay together to the very end. Eaten plainly as a patty these are quite tasty, throw them in a pita with some hummus or ranch dressing, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a dinner.

My ingredients are all eyeballed, but I think this is pretty close.

1 c. Crimini mushrooms, diced

1/3 red pepper, diced

Three large circles of onion (probably ¼ cup), diced

2-3 large cloves garlic

2 c. chickpeas, cooked and drained

1 c. cooked cousous

¼ C. marinated artichoke hearts

2 tbsp tahini

1 tbsp lemon juice

½ packet taco seasoning mix

1 tbsp flax powder

1/8-   ¼ tsp cumin powder

1 C. breadcrumbs

Oil for frying

1/8- ¼  tsp paprika

Process chickpeas, artichoke hearts, tahini, lemon juice, 1-2 cloves garlic, cumin and paprika until mostly smooth but not perfectly.

Set aside.

Saute onion, red pepper, mushroom and 1 clove garlic in olive oil until nicely browned but just a bit crisp. Add this to the chickpea mash, add the taco seasoning, flax and the couscous. Stir until combined.

Form patties about 3 inches in circumference, 1 in. or less in thickness. Roll these in breadcrumbs and fry in about an inch of hot oil. Cook about 2-5 minutes each side, depending on how well they’re staying apart (seems like a bit more heat helps them stay together).