Culinate

Memory, preserved

Raspberry cordial, lost in time

By
November 28, 2007

“I was saving it for something special,” my dad says. I scowl at him. I have just discovered that my dad never ate any of the preserves I gave him last year. Every winter I come back to San Francisco for the holidays, and a few weeks before my departure I mail myself a heavy box of homemade preserves I intend to give as gifts. Not only are the preserves I gave him last year untouched, but so are most of the ones from the year before that.

“It’s depressing,” I say, trying to rein in the edginess in my voice. I know he loves the taste of my raspberry jam, of my sharp and tiny cornichon pickles, of my green tomato chutney and my sage mint jelly. When he visits me in Brooklyn he eats all of them and asks for seconds. But here the jars are coated with dust. The dusty jars seem like evidence of the depression he’s complained about recently. His conversation during this visit has dwelled on things that happened years ago, as if there is nothing new in his life worth reporting. I feel that if I could just convince him to open those jars and dig in with a spoon his taste buds would be flooded with flavor, and that would somehow drag him into the present and out of his doldrums. I am not comfortable with how much he is clinging to the past.

“I just won’t give you any more,” I say, “since you don’t like them anyway.” Something in me feels rejected.

“No, no,” he says, “I love them, that’s why I was saving them.”

I take a deep breath and leave the room. Across the hall from the kitchen is a small room that he uses as a pantry. It is about the size of my entire bedroom three thousand miles away in Brooklyn. The door has a cut out near the bottom for cats that lived here three decades ago. There is an accumulation of recycling waiting to be taken out, and a shelving unit. On one of the shelves is a large plastic tub containing several pounds of rancid walnuts. I carry it back to the kitchen and start pouring walnuts into the trash.

Preserving time in a bottle.

“You shouldn’t buy so many at a time, and you should always store nuts in the refrigerator or the freezer so they don’t go rancid,” I say, “And anyway, you live alone, like me. You don’t need to buy in bulk.”

“Costco only carries things in bulk. That’s why everything there is so cheap,” he says.

“Is it still cheap when you have to throw out rancid food?” I say, marching back out of the kitchen towards the pantry. My father’s choices bewilder me.

Behind the empty space where the walnuts had been I find a dusty green bottle with one inch of liquid left in its bottom. A handwritten label dangles from its neck: “From the Garden of Leda & James.” I stand staring at that bottle, remembering. I don’t need to open it to know that it contains raspberry cordial I made years ago. I know how it will pour, slightly thick yet translucent and ruby bright. I remember my dad visiting us, and the three of us toasting with this homebrew.

“Show him the raspberry patch,” my husband said, and the three of us headed out the back door of our one bedroom basement apartment, glasses of cordial in hand. We walked across our tiny shade garden, through the gate we’d built into our back fence, and into the Greene Avenue Community Garden next door where the raspberries grew.

I don’t need to open the bottle to remember any of that, but I do. I open the bottle and breathe in a cautious whiff. It should be vinegar, it should be the worst dregs of fermentation after all this time, but incredibly it is not. The fragrance hits me the way tropical air does when you first step out of an airport and realize that vacation has begun. I remember picking those raspberries early in the morning before leaving for work, stockpiling them in the freezer until I had enough to make cordial.

They say scent triggers memory more than any other sense. Right behind that first hit of raspberry and nostalgia comes the pressure of other memories. I remember what has changed. I remember the ugly, aluminum-sided building that occupies the space where the community garden used to be and how I still avoid walking past that block. I remember that James moved out just over a year after we shared that raspberry cordial toast with my dad. I remember that I am supposed to be letting go and moving on.

Just as I wish my father would.

I stand staring at the dusty bottle. For one fierce instant I want to swallow every summer day it took to grow the raspberries for that cordial. I want to absorb those days into my bones so that I can never lose them. I take a sip. It tastes like exactly like my memory of it. My eyes sting, but that’s as far as I let that go. I carry the bottle back to the kitchen, rinse it out, and place it in the recycling bin.

“I made us a snack,” I hear Dad say, and turn to see him holding out a peace offering of toast spread with my raspberry jam.

“Are you sure you don’t want to save that for later?” I tease.

“Are you growing raspberries in your new garden?” he asks, smiling.

Leda Meredith is a dancer and writer in New York City. She also teaches botanical courses for the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and has her own horticultural services company, Urban Edens.