My mother is leaning into the refrigerator, tongue clucking as she surveys a landscape of aged dishes. She is pulling out a bowl, sniffing it like a cat. Then she is scraping off the layers of blue as she mutters, “A little mould never hurt anyone.” And now she is offering the bowl to me.
I look down at the mess, wondering what to do. I am two years old.
In this one moment, my mother has taught me two important life lessons. The first is to taste very, very carefully before making a commitment. The second is that you can learn a great deal about a person simply by opening their refrigerator door. Looking into Mom’s refrigerator would have revealed that she was taste-blind: she once made a stew using two-week-old turkey, dried-up cheese ends, shrivelled broccoli and leftover apple pie. She thought it was delicious. Food waste was another obsession: “Think of the starving children in China” was a constant mantra. But above all, she was deeply disinclined to accept responsibility for anybody who’d been felled by her food. Had our guests only had the foresight to peek into the refrigerator, they would instantly have known what danger they were in.
But I suspect Mom would have been as horrified by my refrigerator as I was by hers. She would have recoiled as she took in the massive collection of condiments – and then she would have concluded that I was insane.
There is some truth to this: I find it impossible to pass a bottle of hot sauce, an unusual miso, a strange nut oil or a jar of tahini without experiencing an overwhelming urge to possess it. My refrigerator is crammed with an international array of condiments, and my pantry shelves are thick with oils, sauces, pickles and vinegars.
I blame it on Crete. In the 1970s, when my husband and I were backpacking through Europe, we picked up odd jobs to stretch our money. Just outside of Chania, we spent a day in the olive groves beating the fruit off the trees. To my deep disappointment, the farmer paid us in olive oil.
In those days, the olive oil in the US was nasty stuff – always old, often rancid – and meant mostly for medicinal purposes. I loathed it. But the farmer looked so offended that I took the tiniest, most tentative taste – pursing my lips as if it was something my mother had made. And then I took another. My first thought was: this is what spring would taste like. My next was: where has this been all my life?
From that moment I could not get enough. I tasted it at every stop, appreciating how the flavour changed every few miles; it was as if the roots were pulling flavour straight out of the earth. Then I moved on to vinegar, which turned out to be even more expressive of the land. By the time money ran out and we were forced to go home, I had amassed a fine collection. It got us through that first New York winter; whenever bleak skies got me down, I would open a bottle and find myself back in the Mediterranean. I’d always been fascinated by food, but this was new. I had discovered how deeply food and memory are intertwined.
You surely know where this is going: every voyage yielded new condiments. In Thailand I collected fish sauce and chilli pastes. I came back from China laden with jars of salted Sichuan vegetables and fermented bean pastes. In Japan I discovered the deep, mysterious flavour of aged artisanal soy sauce, the golden glow of new-pressed sesame oil and the deep umami jolt of miso. The Middle East yielded handmade tahini, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and tangy mango-flavoured amba sauce. My pantry shelves grew increasingly crowded.
Then friends discovered my condiment passion and things got worse. A Japanese friend sends me shipments of her homemade miso along with the tart pickled apricots umeboshi. People show up for dinner bearing vinegars they’ve concocted, just-made hot sauces and once a bottle of homemade Worcestershire sauce, which so far outshines the commercial kind that I dread the day the bottle runs dry.
But my real downfall came with the advent of internet shopping. All manner of arcane condiments, once available only in their country of origin, are now just a click away. My shelves now hold colatura from Sicily, artisanal gochuchang and snail black vinegar from Korea and a wild array of Indian pickles and chutneys. Just knowing that I own them all makes me absurdly happy. It also makes me a better cook. But lately it’s occurred to me how much better my childhood would have been if Mom had shared my obsession. After all, when your refrigerator is filled with condiments, there’s no room for ageing leftovers.
Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl is published by Random House, £14.46