I was born in 1970 when President Nixon was still in office and the Vietnam War started to wind down. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin also died that year, but the Chevrolet Vega and I both came to life. Recent news coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests reminded me that I am not young. I remember the massacre because it happened the same year I graduated high school. Until now, I haven’t thought much about my “number” age or why this somber anniversary, and not my twentieth high school reunion, made me pause and reflect.
I have written about food and memory before, having published a few articles and a book about home pickling traditions and the people who preserve family traditions at home. The smell or taste of some foods, not just preserved food, can connect us to a memory of a meaningful person, place or a time in our lives. Recipes shared down through the generations open a window into history. I am still most interested in preserved foods and beverages (including pickles) because they are an edible artifact of hand-made artisanship. As I’ve said before, “When we preserve food, we pay tribute to the people and places that shaped who we are today.” That is why I think it’s important to experience the taste and the story of foods–where it came from, how it was made, who made it, why was it made? Beyond the packaging narrative, I want to know the backstory. For some food and drinks, new memories are created by the appreciator.
A couple of Christmas’s ago, just weeks after my dad passed away, we opened a bottle of 1970 Dow’s Vintage Port. We had to prepare for this opening because neither one of us expected to finish the bottle that night. After reading several resources on how to serve and store vintage ports, we located an old glass wine decanter given to us by Jason’s grandmother Toodles, which was perfect for serving and storing the remaining port. Perhaps it had a lot to do with the bittersweet mood of the season, but opening that bottle and taking that first sip still stands out in my memory. Obviously, I didn’t make the port myself, but I saw it as a completely soothing reminder that a 37-year old bottle of wine was worth more (in taste and monetary value) than it was the day it was bottled. One bottle survived the pack for many years, traveled far and wide, stuck in a warehouse or two, collected some dust and was evaluated over and over by business people who then assigned a price before the final leg of it’s tour ended at our home where we opened it up to the world and appreciated it for all of it’s experience and age, and savored every strawberry red drop.
More than fortified wine, this port had a story that would be difficult to put on a label. The story wasn’t limited to Dow or the Douro Valley and it didn’t end upon purchase. Instead, the memory of experiencing this great port almost two years ago lives on. We chose to share that bottle together alone, when we needed something powerful and good to remind us that age is a part of a glorious life. We turned off the lights and listened to Neil Young’s On the Beach, sat silently and sipped a glass or two of great port. It’s one of the best memories I have in my old age.
The value of some foods and beverages goes way beyond price. In fact, it should have little to do with the dollar value of food. Sometimes the experience of eating and drinking is a life-affirming act. It’s a simple pleasure we should all enjoy no matter how old we are.