Bittersweet

Bittersweet

by Kiley Miller

Food is a special kind of time machine. Each dish is a different memory, a different relationship or experience. An aroma or taste traps me, hooking my brain through my nose or leading me by the tongue to place me back in time. A smell wafts around a corner, and I’m watching Grandma and Grandpa ‘Bel ― short for Nabel (nuh-BEL) ― weave their way around each other through the kitchen as a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins yell over each other in the adjacent dining room.


Each memory is like that: sweet and inviting with a twinge of an unexpected, bitter gut-punch upon realizing that the past is where those moments live now.

***

We sat at an outdoor café in Morocco, my boyfriend and I in April 2018, sweating and waiting for our order. We watched tagines doled out at the tables and people-watched as tourists swarmed the food carts and vendors around Fez, and I was thankful for the occasional breeze that offered some relief from the heat and carried savory hints of what was in store for us. I didn’t think anything of it as my plate was dropped off in front of me, a glistening and slightly blackened, bone-in chicken thigh and leg over a mound of couscous piled high, adorned with cooked veggies. I split off a bite of carrot, scooped up some couscous, and shoveled it in.

My teeth sink into the softened carrot, and my eyes brim with tears.


The spices are one dimension of the surprise, the North African and Mediterranean flavors coming to life and exploding one by one: an almost bitter turmeric made sweet by the brightness of olive oil, and the forceful garlic complemented by the simple salt and pepper. The texture added to my surprise. The outside offers just a little resistance then opens up to an inside of an almost mashed-potato-but-creamier consistency. It’s delicious but not so tasty as to make a person cry. But the flavor is just one piece of the puzzle that my brain is frantically trying to sort out, to account for the waterworks display that’s quickly unfolding.


You know the scene in Ratatouille where the mean critic takes one bite of that eponymous dish, and you’re swooped back in time to his childhood in provincial France?


In the span of a blink, of one flex of the jaw, the bazaar around me morphs into the chaos of my family. My French-born, Algerian-raised grandpa is the only cook I’ve ever known to roast a carrot just so.


It’s late afternoon in suburban Ohio. I’m back at the sunny dining room table and the sounds of spirited conversations pulsate around me ― an experience made impossible as I was, literally, thousands of miles and an ocean away. My grandparents were over a decade deceased, the house with its revolving door of family members on parade long-since sold, and the creek and apple tree that hosted endless summer games with my cousins hadn’t crossed my mind in years.


But, there I am with a plate of Grandpa’s roast carrots and couscous, sitting in the high-backed chair with the scratchy, canvas-esque seat, the TV overly loud from across the house and further obscuring the conversation around me. Grandpa’s raspy and heavily accented voice filters in from the next room as Grandma’s equally raspy, stutter-step of a laugh collides with the careless clanging of dishes in the sink. Movement around me signals the musical chairs of a big family as the seat next to me is emptied and refilled by a different cousin-aunt-uncle.


It's a moment that lasts a lifetime and sits heavily in my empty belly as I realized where I was, rocked unexpectedly into another dimension.

My heart raced as I opened my eyes and saw my poor bewildered boyfriend staring at me with more than a little concern. I quickly shook my head, dislodging a few tears.


“It’s Grandpa,” I tried to explain to my future husband. He’d come into my life seven years too late to have tasted such a dish. He’d never experienced the hustle and bustle, the lively chaos that was yet another signature of life at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t expect my teary, stammered explanation to make sense. “I’m home.”


About:

Featured in our September 2021 issue, "Nostalgia"