Saturday, September 25, 2010

In the company of food and memories

Today, my roommate and I had our traditional round of "what do you want for dinner?" "I don't know, what do you want for dinner?" "I don't know, are you craving anything?" "Not really, what sounds good?"

It's the same conversation that I imagine is carried out on a nightly basis in homes around the world. Actually, I'm pretty sure that some of you are out there nodding, going "yep, that sounds familiar!"

After a little bit of discussion, part of dinner tonight it going to contain a spinach dip recipe that I've been making for the better part of a decade now. Each time I make it, I change it up a little, so I guarantee that if you've had it once, the next time I make it, it will be a different theme. I was planning this night's creation, and suddenly my mind started running, pulling back to a tiny kitchen a decade in my past.

It's a pretty typical Friday night in the first apartment I rented after high school. I'd just finished classes for the day, and my best friend from high school, Cara*came up after her last class at a college an hour away to spend the weekend with me. It's sort of a little tradition of ours; we get together to cook and eat, sharing our stories of the week. Tonight, as we were shopping in the QFC across the street, she started throwing odd ingredients into the basket.

"Chopped spinach?" I asked, picking up the frozen package and looking up at her incredulously. She just nodded, her blond curls bouncing.
"It'll be good, trust me." She assured me as we went up to checkout.
"Oookay...." I said, forking over the cash. Seemed a little out there to me, but what the hay? She's never steered me wrong before.

As we got back to the apartment, we squeezed ourselves into my tiny kitchen, and she set to work. Now, I know you've heard the phrase "tiny kitchen" but really, the picture in your head right now does not actually describe the situation. The apartment was originally built as a hotel for the World's Fair. For those of you too young to know, Seattle was home to the 1962 World's Fair, which ran from April to October of that year. 10 million people came to the city, and it was actually the event that brought us our iconic landmark, the Space Needle. With all those people flooding the city, hotels shot up everywhere to house them all, but when the fair ended, the city had thousands upon thousands of empty rooms. They started converting them into apartments.

Picture your average hotel room, make it a two bedroom apartment, and add on a kitchen. That is how tiny this place was. The kitchen consisted of a narrow aisle with cupboards on either side. The fridge couldn't be opened all the way because it would hit the cupboards on the opposite side of the kitchen. If the oven door was open, it closed off the kitchen, and a human could be trapped on either side. Really. So, when I say the two of us were squeezed in tight as we cooked dinner, I mean it.

I watched as Cara mixed and stirred the ingredients in  a bowl and slipped it into the fridge to chill. As we waited, she sat up on one counter, and I sat on the other, propping our legs on the opposite sides and talking a mile a minute, catching up on all the latest gossip. Sometime later, she pulled the bowl out of the fridge and we sat there for hours, dipping Hawaiian bread into the concoction, and reconnecting after a week of separation. It was a scene that was repeated on countless other nights through our friendship, but that night was the first Spinach Dip night.

Even now, thinking back on it, I'm smiling.

It's funny how food can strike up so many memories, isn't it? The ingredients to my Spinach Dip Base (I call it my base because I tweak the heck out of it every time I make it) are simple. Sour cream, chopped spinach, and dry vegetable soup mix. It's not likely to turn up on a Batali menu any time soon. Yes, I fancy it up by adding things like scallions, asiago, crushed black pepper, garlic, diced peppers...but the basic ingredients are hardly extraordinary.

And yet, every time I dip a slice of bread into it and get that flavor in my mouth, somehow, I'm right back in my old apartment, smiling and sharing a good time with one of my best friends in the world. Times have changed, and Cara lives across the country now. She has a husband, several kids, and a world of her own. We haven't spoken in a couple years now. But every time I take this dish and put a new spin on it, I think of her.

And I smile.

What foods bring up YOUR happy memories?

(* Name changed)

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