I’ve heard that scents can trigger the strongest memories. I’m not sure I agree. Think of Proust and that madeleine; it was the texture, the crumble, the feel of the tea-soaked little cake in his mouth that opened a trap door to the past. For me it’s the whole experience; the tenderness of my Nannie’s brisket and the way a soggy slice of bread felt when sopping up the salty juices, or the stealth involved as my mother and I deftly wrangled soft apple bits out of Nannie’s warm apple cake, always pulling from the bottom so that nobody would notice once it was served. My strongest food memories are intensified by the use of all my senses and the foods I actually touched are the ones that hum to me the most. But the foods I love the best are my favorites simply because of the memories to which they are attached.
Which brings me to Shakespeare in the Park. Hundreds of us residents, those who haven’t thought of Shakespeare since high school, along with those who can recite Othello on a whim, sprawl on blankets with families and picnics and relax in the glow of Hamlet, or Two Gentlemen of Verona, or Midsummer Nights Dream. Children stare awed at the make-shift stage and parents congratulate themselves as their offspring show unexpected decorum. Shaded by the massive oak trees of this magical little ordinary town green, families actually enjoy each other’s company. And they enjoy the food. Some folks come with sandwiches from the sub shop around the corner, but most use the opportunity to pack elaborate feasts. From fresh tomato brushetta to thermoses of lobster bisque, enjoying the tastes and smells of Shakespeare in the Park has become as important as the play itself. Friends show off their gourmand status, revealing fabulously stinky cheeses and imported cured meats. While most choose to stick to the usual flavors of a RI summer, in my family, we had our own Shakespeare in the Park tradition. I don’t actually remember how or when it started, but for us, Shakespeare in the park always meant Chuck’s peanut sauce. My step-father would make vats of the stuff, pack it all up in a big Tupperware, and present it proudly on the picnic blanket. We fought to dip our skewers of cold grilled chicken and spears of cucumber, and he soon learned to pack each of us a separate container. We fenced with our leftover bamboo skewer and we battled over whether the peanut sauce should be chunky or smooth. Chuck preferred the texture of little peanut bits and my brother and I whined that a sauce should not have to be chewed. We discovered new dippers, pretzels were fun (and satisfied Chuck’s desire for that crunch factor) and so were carrot sticks, but my favorite was a hunk of crusty bread that would soak up the intense flavor of the garlic and ginger.
Of course, peanut sauce is not relegated to Shakespeare in the Park only. In fact, I make it quite often since Jeff has discovered that it is wonderful on just about anything. His latest creation is a Thai burger, basted with peanut sauce and topped with marinated cucumbers. It’s also amazing on pizza in place of tomato sauce, when topped with chunks of chicken and slices of red onion, or thinned with some broth and tossed with soba noodles and chopped bell pepper. But I still prefer that dipped slice of crusty bread above all else.
And tonight, with my tummy full of peanut sauce, instead of shoveling my walkway as I should, I will pull a battered copy of Romeo and Juliet off the bookshelf, and pretend that I’m sitting on the grass.
Chuck’s Peanut Sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
1-2 teaspoons Thai garlic chili sauce (to taste)
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add in the onion, and sauté one minute. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring, until slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Add the peanut butter and reduce heat to low. Allow the peanut butter to melt slightly, and then add the coconut milk, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Wisk all together until smooth. Add the garlic chili sauce to taste (based on how much spice you enjoy, and also based on the brand of sauce you buy, as each has a different level of heat). Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Serve warm with bread and veggies for dipping. Or serve over grilled chicken, on sandwiches, on a stir-fry, or use in any which way you like!