Spicy, Bland, Gone

Some grieving processes don’t come on all at once. Perhaps the “denial” stage lasts a bit longer. Maybe some parts of our minds recognize that we don’t yet have the skills, burying a bit of complex bits of the grief for later. Some flavors of grief take a decade or more to ripen.

Because this, my friends, frolleagues, and comrades, is a story about grief and flavor.

Grief deepens and matures into resilience, as memory and imagination give us new context with ticks on a scale of days and years and decades and millennia. I’m feeling a great conjunction of those now, six or more, but today I’ll try to only discuss one: my acute loss at the flavors of onions and garlic as the culinary loves of my life.

this my friends, frolleagues and comrades, is a story about grief and flavor

It was March 2018 and I was doing my second bout of elimination diet in two years. Weird bentos of white rice, witted spinach, and salted chicken breast, the whole nine. I was in great distress, and cancelled a trip to Beijing and Shanghai. The clarity and focus I was finally starting to feel unraveled rapidly in a cascade of willfulness, pain, and growing clarity of a different and most unwelcome sort.

I’d lost onions and garlic and shallots and chives. Four flavors at the center of literally all my favorite foods.

My elimination diet, along with several invasive diagnostic explorations, had ruled out most other culprits. Really: I had no idea how to eat without those four foods. Most days I still don’t. As I remarked more often than I’d liked (seriously, annoying much?) “Those are some culturally significant foods.”

Rarely did I elaborate which cultures. And in the context of catered and other commercial-chef prepared foods, onions and garlic are added to every cuisine onto which they could plausibly bulk up a dish. I just try my best.
Some days I fail. My willfulness wins, probably in the form of a taco, maybe in the form of dumplings. Or, like one Friday a quarter when the foulness of my mood exceeds my ability to resist a pepperoni pizza.

Those are some culturally significant foods

The ones that really hurt, that make me feel like I’ve lost vast parts of myself, are Cal-Mex and Sichuan food. Both are layered with childhood memories and fond adult ones. of Fresno and the sierra foot hills and Berkeley streets, of Chengdu and the tiny slices of it that can be found In kitchens across the south bay. Both now cause me distress. Many kinds of distress. You really don’t want to empathize too hard, really.

Most painful for me is the fact they don’t even taste good to me anymore. I’ve lost my love of the flavor of garlic, which I will mourn longer than the actual bulb.

Some talented people have written well about this. I’ll excerpt a bit that is as resonant as it is representative:

I have had to strip my knowledge of cooking down to the studs. […] And I now jealously hoard Swiss chard stems, which have a subtle beet-like sweetness that makes them a great third musketeer in a classic celery-carrot mirepoix. Replacing garlic is harder. There really is nothing quite like the familiar sticky warmth of a fresh clove or two (or three), whether blended into pesto, steeped in a vinaigrette, or grated into yogurt.

So I’ve leaned into other beloved sharp flavors instead. Citrus is a new mainstay: I use grated zest for freshness, fresh juice for acidity, and preserved lemon or lime rind for aromatic bite. I go through bunches of fresh herbs—parsley, dill, basil, mint, thyme, rosemary, and oregano—and jars of spices like caraway, cumin, fennel seeds, and smoked paprika.

Zoe Fenson, TasteCooking

An allium-free existence is an absolute loss, especially since I already hate chard.

But the flavors. The other flavors. If there are only two of anything, it is almost as boring as the bland monotony of one flavor. Losing alliums, even down to the joy of their flavor, has opened up my culinary world. There are hundreds of flavors I can joyfully explore. The promise of those new memories, and the creativity to get them out in the world, is what carries me forward.

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