I’ve always loved food, so it’s not surprising that many of my memories are in some way related to food, whether eating it in restaurants, bakeries, ramen shops, creperies and even on street corners, or standing in various kitchens with grandmothers, aunts, college friends, parents, in-laws and my own children helping chop, roast, saute, bake and serve it.
Whenever I have the chance, I ask chefs about their earliest food memories. Inevitably, they share stories of standing on a stool to stir the pot with a wooden spoon at a grandmother’s side, or of running to the garden to bring ingredients to mom, seminal experiences that influenced a career. One of mine is being all dressed up at a fancy rooftop restaurant overlooking the lights of what I called “the big city” (it was only Cleveland). I was tucked in a dark leather booth with my grandparents, two people who loved escargots and cocktails and the polish of finely-trained, black-vested servers, and who were determined to introduce me to this rarified world. It was at that dinner that I learned to peel the leaves off an artichoke – a vegetable unseen in the grocery stores in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma — and scrape my teeth to get at what I now think of as artichoke caviar. It was at that same restaurant that my joke-telling grandfather folded starched white napkins into funny animals to pass the time between courses; now I use his trick to entertain my own children as I introduce them to the joys of eating out.
If you’re tasting chilaquiles for the first time, you might make your own food memory at Dos Santos, an Uptown taqueria that I review this week. My first taste of this simple, earthy dish came years ago at Mijita, a casual Mexican restaurant in San Francisco run by James Beard award-winning chef Traci Des Jardins. Why it happened there, I don’t know; after all, I’d grown up in a town where Mexican food was a staple. But not until that plate of chips sautéed in ranchera salsa with refried beans and an egg did I discover a homey side to Mexican food that I never knew existed, chilaquiles being a home cook’s way of using up stale tortillas. My husband is in San Francisco as I write this; when he gets home, I know my first question will be, “Did you eat any chilaquiles for me?”
And that’s the power of food: It helps keep our memories alive. So every time I eat an artichoke, I smile and think of my grandparents. Those chilaquiles at Dos Santos made me smile, too, not just because they reminded me of San Francisco, but because they were so incredibly good, smothered with earthy tomato-red chile sauce and topped with chicken tinga.
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What are your fondest food memories? Have any of them happened at restaurants in Denver? Share your thoughts in a comment.