A thought, like a fragrant breeze, enveloped him. His mind had been wandering in the grinding routine of another day in the dosshouse kitchen.
Now his reverie lifted his spirit and let it soar from the grease and grime of his surroundings. There must have been magic in the air that day all those years ago. The memory never left him. He could remember that first kiss. That soft awkward collision of teeth, tongues and tissue. It was a moment to savour for a lifetime.
Not just because he discovered love, but because it began another passion. One that lasted a lifetime.
He could remember it as if it were yesterday and even though it was 54 years ago when they were ten, in love and innocent., the taste, touch and smell lingered on.
The memory of that first kiss, fragrant and pungent, soft but insistent, could flood his senses now as he sweated off two pounds of onions, four pounds of cubed potato and four pounds of diced carrot in a ten gallon soup pot .
They were two ten year olds playing in a school shed on a hot summer’s day when they sought shelter and respite from the blazing sun.
“Are you my girlfriend?” he asked her, “I am,” she said, her head slightly bowed and tilted while one eye squinted and twinkled with mischief. “Will you kiss me?” she asked. “I don’t know how,” he said, “I’ve never kissed before, like that.”
They sat on a wooden bench, cool and shaded from the sun. Susan wore pink shorts. She held his hand. He felt a glow from the close warmth of her body. She smelled of hair and shampoo and just a salty trace of sweat.
“Should we close our eyes?” he asked. “Not unless we want to miss each other,” she told him, “but maybe we can close our eyes in a while…”
If Susan had a sentence to finish she abandoned it as, tilting her head to her right, she brought her sweet mouth to his. As her soft pink lips touched his mouth he remembered thinking of clouds. And sweet plums, fragrant flowers and…
“What’s that taste? What have you been eating?” he blurted. She looked puzzled. Susan was American, from Tennessee, in fact, with a mess of tight blonde curls on her head, long legs and smooth, sallow skin. Her reddish pink lips stood out like blisters on her face. Her family, she told him, was Italian American.
“It’s garlic,” she announced but he was none the wiser.
“What’s garlic?” he asked.
“It’s kinda like an onion,’’ she told him, “Mom puts lots of it in her pasta sauce. She says it protects us from Irish colds.”
He nodded sagely without a blind notion of what she was talking about.
“What’s pasta?” he struggled.
Susan looked at him, her green eyed Irish boy, with a mixture of pity and puzzlement. They were too young to suffer the affront of diverting their passion so hastily from kissing to food.
“Pasta is, like, spaghetti and linguini,” she said, clearly satisfied that her explanation would lay the matter to rest. Her eyes half shut, Susan licked her lips, puckered and slowly moved towards him.
But he wasn’t finished. Aroused by the exoticism of her flavour, he needed to know more. Although as skinny as a stick, he was, his own mother often said, blessed with an appetite. “You’ll eat me out of house and home,” she often remarked.
“What’s spa – getty and lin – gweeny?” he asked.
“It’s food,” she snapped in exasperation, “like, you guys eat so many potatoes. We eat pasta and rice.”
“Rice?” he said, the only rice he knew, was a sweet and gritty, cold pudding.
Although it was not immediately apparent to either of them, his passion, such as he was aware of it, was not in the least diminished by this unexpected diversion into the culinary mysteries of American cuisine.
He was already aware that many of his American neighbours didn’t get their dinner until the evening, never eat tea at tea time and had lunch and supper in their daily regime.
His own family, like all the Irish families he knew, had breakfast of porridge, tea and toast; dinner at one with meat and two veg and a heap of flowery spuds and tea with salad or baked beans and sausages for teatime, around 6.30pm.
If you were lucky, you had a glass of hot chocolate and a couple of Goldgrain biscuits before your bedtime. That was supper.
On Sunday there was a roast of flesh or fowl and the leftovers were eaten cold on Monday for tea. They had Irish stew of a Tuesday and boiled bacon and cabbage of a Wednesday. On Thursday there was a fry-up and on Friday, a day of fasting, they ate fish . Saturday was always left to its own designs and a bit of braised round steak or a gigot lamb chop were the best bets.
All of the above were eaten with boiled carrots and parsnips or cabbage because that’s what was grown in the garden. They had their own spuds, too.
Food, in other words, was as predictable as the Irish weather and just as soggy. Americans, on the other hand, had French fries and potato chips; as well as guacamole, salsa, fried chicken, sweetcorn, pasta and garlic.
A whiff of garlic, life would soon teach him, could quell the passion of a mountain goat. But not him. He got his first taste of garlic the day he first tasted love.
Susan brought him home to meet her Momma who served them tall glasses of Kool-Aid frosted with ice. Then her Momma showed him garlic and linguini, spaghetti and fettucini. She taught him the secret of her sauce and let him stir the gently bubbling pot of tomatoes. And he looked at Susan and knew he’d always love her for what she’d never know she gave him.
The clang of the bells told him the doors were open and all the nightlife, drunk, drugged and dopey, were jostling for places in the food line. Ok, so the food was slow stewed chuck meat and whatever vegetables he could lay his hands on at the market, before they got dumped. But there was always a little garlic and a whole lotta love.