I cannot remember names. I never could. Delightfully, there was lockdown. During online meetings everyone’s name was right below their face like a caption in a Criterion film. Cheat codes.
“Hello, Patricia!” I would say at School Leadership Team meetings.
“How was your weekend, Rebecca?” I would nonchalantly add.
Now, if I see you face to face, my background isn’t blurred, but my foreground is. I have no idea what your name is. Names are not part of my relationship with memory.
This column stands firmly as a chronicle of black history from the perspective of me, a black person, and things have happened to me, which are history, so I end up doing a fair share of remembering in the space.
Memory is far, far cooler than the internet. There’s still so much mystery there. The internet is a sunny day on a prominent hill with near perfect visibility in every direction, while memory is what you can see in the dark with a less than average flashlight; not even one of those LED ones, just a D cell battery job where you can only see what’s right in front of you. And Memory is best friends with Imagination, so who really knows what’s going on out there? In there. Wherever.
What I like the best about memory is that I cannot remember your childhood. Even if we knew each other as kids, I don’t know what it’s like to be you. Online, we can binge-watch the exact same thing on a streaming service from opposite ends of the earth, but if you sat at the desk next to me in every class from 3rd grade to 10th grade because our names were right next to each other in alphabetical order, you would still be living a entirely unique show on a completely different set of software and hardware than I.
Each of our realities is infinitely different. No two living things are exactly the same. But at least for human beings, there are patterns and nodes of experiential intersection where some specific aspect of life may be true for many people. Something I remember might be something you remember, even if our last names aren’t anywhere near one another, alphabetically.
My memory uses what adventurers in blue police boxes from foreign planets might call “fixed points in time”: frozen moments, single images - usually associated with an object. A tiny toy flatbed truck carrying plastic logs. The emergency stop switch on an elevator. A string of pearls. A streetlight. The memory happens in a kind of peripheral vision; I see the object (in my head) and if I keep staring at it, the memory kind of plays around it, as if the object is the needle on a record. And if more than one of us share the significance of that same object, we may not hear the same song, but I believe there is a harmony of sorts.
So, to the aspic.
We stand at a moment in human history when machines are being used to create art. No decisions, self discovery, or craft are involved. To many, this is a terrifying concept.
But I am neither panicked or disrupted, because, well…the aspic.
The category of food has long since been mimicked by industry, yet the overall truth remains that carefully cultivated foodstuffs, prepared by the hands of an actual human being, cooked by heat and time are far more nourishing and delicious than pre-prepared microwavable fare. Both can exist in the world, but corporations only mass create foods they feel that a mass of people might buy. There are pork cracklin’ people and frozen burrito people and nearly all of us were instant noodle people at one time or another.
But the aspic. Aspic = savory jello. Yes, it’s a very old recipe and I am not going into how that particular sausage is made (though sausage is often involved) but instead touch on its uniqueness, and the fact that it is nearly impossible that any corporate entity would ever decide to mass produce it. The aspic is proof that no matter the power of the corporation (or the algorithm), true artistic individuality is something only a human being can do.
The aspic itself is not my focus, let’s just get past this as quickly as we can and for goodness sake don’t look it up online, it’s ghastly.
My focus is on a particular aspic mold. See, the point of the aspic was that it gave gelatin the chance to serve as main course rather than side dish, a concept so metaphorically rich, but I digress. To take on this challenge, the aspic had to take center stage on the table, and to do that required drama. So during the time that aspics were popular (I don’t know when that was, but there were tons of aspic recipes in “The Joy Of Cooking”) the aspic mold also gained prominence.
Thus (and I’m gonna go out on a limb here: many of you may not have heard of this object, but for those who have, this should generate a significant jolt of recollection) The Copper Fish Pan. I believe it is a koi, or salmon, and it is curved in an elegant inverted “U” shape. I never ate anything prepared in it, because it was always hanging on the kitchen wall in my grandparents’ house. There was a Copper Lobster companion piece as well.
My time in my grandparents’ kitchen was liberal yet limited, but when I was there that pan, which my Grandmother told me was meant for aspics (but she really didn’t like aspics), shone brilliantly, no matter the season. Then I found out it wasn’t just my grandmother’s house; they were in many more homes - you’d go to a birthday party and there was one in the kitchen there, I’d pick up a date at their house and there was one in their kitchen…
“My grandmother has one of those!”
“Yeah? It’s been here forever…I don’t even know what it’s for.”
“It’s an aspic pan!’ I’d say excitedly, because dates love salad trivia.
I’ve found copper fish pans in kitchens from New England to Northern California.
Ring a bell? A few of you must be familiar with them, and at least one of you actually has one: it is you, brave decorator, that truly understands the bequeathing of legacy through generations, passing forward not only photographs or even stories, but experiences. This entirely non-aquatic wall hanging, sparkling brightly with quasi-usefulness, is an heirloom not of utility, but purely of memory.
Someday my own child may bring a date home to bond over this penny-bright oddity, and I will listen as she explains what an aspic is, and a gentle yet charming hilarity will ensue. Perhaps her date will recognize the object, and we’ll take comfort in the knowledge that their family in some true yet ethereal way connects to our own. And if this relationship deepens, our copper fish pan will someday belong to them, a new generation, my daughter and…y’know…what’s-their-name.