It’s in 1977 and so much has already happened. Apple introduces the Apple II. The space shuttle takes it’s maiden voyage off the back of a jetliner. Elvis Presley dies at the age of 42. But what weighs on your mind is Emma’s.
Emma’s serves Mexican food typical of the Southwest in a single room on a dusty road in Kingman, AZ. Chili gravy for their enchiladas. No tomato sauce to dilute the musty hot of ancho peppers. Plenty of chips and salsa. Neon signs along the dining room transform the dimly lit into a mysterious color.
Tonight we are going to dine on shredded beef tacos, sopaipilla and sarsaparilla root beer. We slip into our Sears Huskys, throw on those plaid shirts Mom picked out and drag a comb through feathered hair. 15 minutes in the station wagon. Dad and Mom are in a good mood. We four boys, too.
Fast forward to today. Steve Konarik must be Austin, TX’s most famous caterer. With his darling wife Carrie, they have been divining culinary miracles across town. The food is inventive, smart, local, and best of all, the most delicious finger food ever. We could spend hours describing Kurant Events. Not today.
Instead let’s explore a small operation they call Weezieboo’s. It’s one part old school canning with plenty of sugar and one part fusion-cooking with plenty of creativity. Grapefruit jalapeno Pear and pineapple. Tomato chutney. Smoked onion marmalade. And most curious of all, root beer.
The true name for the jam is Hoja Santa, or “sacred leaf” in Española. It imparts an unmistakable flavor profile of root beer accentuated more with the addition of vanilla. Subtle tones of anise dance on the tongue. This is as close to soda-as-a-jelly as you can get.
Put a small teaspoon on the tongue and leave today. See where you were when root beer was nectar from the heavens and you were eleven years old. Take a trip through time by putting a teaspoon in your mouth.
Not so strange really. How many tastes or smells can whisk you from the present to the past? How many flavors are so cemented that a small trigger puts you at a emotional moment from your personal history?
This is what Martin Lindstrom described in his book Buyology: Truth and Lies About What We Buy. Along with Dr. Calvert, he proved that consumers make different decisions based on what they smell (see chapter 8). Have any doubt, then notice the scent at Abercrombie & Fitch. It is NOT arbitrary. The smell of peculating popcorn at the movie theater isn’t either. It’s called sensory branding.
Best-selling author and developmental molecular biologist, John Medina, explains how this works in his book Brain Rules: 12 Steps to Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Smell is the only sense to be directly tied to the place in the brain that encodes emotional memory (see chapter 8). A very positive emotion tied with an odor translates to a very strong recall cue. When the smell returns we remember. We feel again.
And now you know. What will you do with this information? How will you take the taste of blueberries from Summers in Maine and apply it today? Or freshly squeezed lemons from the stand you set up at the end of the driveway? What is that emotional trigger that haunts you today. Make that the secret ingredient of your dish tonight. Do it now. Then tell us about it in the comment line.
Meanwhile, I am going back to 1977 with a jar of Hoja Santa. It might be a glaze on a ham. Or a way to spice up a cocktail. Or a simple way to stretch out a piece of buttered toast.