If Memory Serves: My Introduction To Curry

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If Memory Serves chronicles moments from my dining past, perhaps explaining why I'm so damn strange.

I was a kid when I started to pick up on the the existence of regional differences in what and how people cook. My dad grew up on a poor Southern farm and thus favored fried catfish, pork cracklings, chitlins and such. Same with my mom, though in a more urbane style--meaning a small town upbringing and no innards.

When we moved to Illinois, I began to hear them complain. The sweet corn wasn't real sweet corn. They didn't know how to season things in the Midwest. You couldn't find greens...and this despite the pile of spinach on my plate.

It also helped that my uncle loved to cook. The first time I met this man he'd returned from Europe and was on his way to Southeast Asia--Vietnam, more specifically.

Uncle Highlee left the farm for the 82nd Airborne in 1944, saw a lot of combat and remained in Germany (and the army). He learned to cook hefty meat rolls there and to bake pizza in Italy. After three years in Vietnam--involving more combat and several furloughs exploring other parts of Asia--he'd picked up the art of curry.

So I was versed in soul food, Neapolitan pizza and German sausage by the time I was 12. But those curries...

Highlee didn't believe in treading lightly, not when it came to sauces. I've never been sure where he found death-dealing spices after returning to the States for good in 1970, but his curries flared like a furnace, with each bite adding more fury. Once when I was in college he made a dish for me and some friends. These guys took one fork and began to sweat, then bitch: "too hot," "can't eat this," and so on.

Finally one of them finished his bowl and started for the kitchen in search of second helpings. What the hell, I asked. "It's so hot you can't eat it, but so good you want more," he explained.

Because of my uncle (and time my family spent living in England), it took some years before I discovered that curry didn't mean "explosive." In fact, it wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I began to pick up on the range of Indian and Thai sauces, from sweet to savory to spicy.

On the other hand, his curry did teach me to love hot foods and to endure the excessively hot...except that now, at my age, it's hard to go back for more.
 
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