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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Jolly Senses

May 29, 2019

My senses are strongly connected to my memory. Something as small as a single thought can trigger a vivid recollection. But nothing brings back a memory more intensely than four of our five senses— sound, smell, sight, and taste. Sorry, touch, you’re out of this conversation.

When I hear an old song on the radio, it takes me back to the first time I heard that song or a memorable event that happened while I was listening to that song. All I have to hear are the opening few guitar licks of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and I am instantly transformed to my childhood bedroom. That is my earliest memory of a song, any song. In my mind’s eye, I can see the room, I can see the small toy record player, and I can see the orange and yellow swirl on the record label as it turned on the record player— and that was over 53 years ago. Multiply that by hundreds of songs throughout my life, and I have a deep, personal connection to most of them.

My sense of smell is strongly connected to my memories, too. One whiff of a good aroma, or a bad odor, and I am connected to some event, item, or foodstuff from my past that has a good, bad, or meaningful association. I was walking across the parking lot from my office to the restaurant the other day, and the prep cooks were cooking roux for our restaurant’s gumbo. The smell of toasty flour browning was billowing out of the exhaust vents on top of the restaurant, and, in that instant, the aroma took me back instantly to my grandmother’s kitchen.

As a child, my family ate almost every Sunday lunch at my grandmother’s house. Gravy was always the last item she prepared using the pan drippings from the roasted leg of lamb, roast beef, or turkey she had just pulled out of the oven. That nutty, browned-flour scent wafted through the house, and I always knew that lunch was just minutes away.

Nothing may connect to the recesses of my memory banks more than my sense of taste. I can be halfway across the globe and my first bite of lamb will instantly take me back to my paternal grandmother’s house. Fried chicken takes me back to her house, too. Brownies and chili— not paired together, obviously— take me back to my maternal grandmother’s house. Gumbo reminds me of my mom and my childhood home. I could go on like this for hours.

Last week I wrote that “peaches taste like summer.” It’s true. But not my childhood summers. Nothing tastes more like my youth than a sour apple Jolly Rancher candy. Nothing. Period. I ate several different candies as a kid, though the sour apple flavored Jolly Rancher hard candy was tops on my list. My saliva glands were working overtime as I typed the previous sentence.

Several years ago, I was sitting in a meeting I attend almost daily. There are always baskets of candy sitting out on tables at this particular meeting. Different people are in charge of keeping the candy baskets filled throughout the year. One day someone added Jolly Rancher candies to the usual mix of Tootsie Rolls, miniature candy bars, and assorted hard candies. I saw a neon green sour apple Jolly Rancher near the bottom of the basket and, on a whim, popped it into my mouth. It had been decades since I had tasted one.

I was instantly transformed to the Minit Mart in my old neighborhood. That was ground zero for snacks and candies when I was a kid. My friends and I would ride our bikes to the Minit Mart in the hot Mississippi summers and load up on Icees and sweets.

Jolly Ranchers were my go-to candy of choice. Five dollars could buy an entire box of Jolly Ranchers in those days. More weeks than not, I rode my Schwinn Stingray nine blocks to the Minit Mart and spent my entire weekly allowance— five dollars— on a box of Jolly Ranchers, rode home with the box tucked under my arm, and stashed them in my room so my brother wouldn’t find them. The box never lasted a full week, and my brother never found them.

Every group of kids has a hangout spot and it changes with every generation. For several years ours was the Minit Mart. My friends and I were still on bikes, but teenagers with cars and driver’s licenses hung out there, too. It’s the same convenience store that Jimmy Buffett sang about in his song “The Great Peanut Butter Conspiracy.” He told the story and identified the building during a concert at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1978. In the song he called it the “Mini Mart,” but that must have been to protect the identity of the guilty. The statute of limitations has run out now. But it wouldn’t matter because there is a gynecological clinic there now.

Somewhere out there today, in some random neighborhood, on a non-descript street, in a small unassuming house, is a boy in his bedroom with music turned up loud. He is lip syncing every word to what he thinks is one of— if not— the coolest songs ever written. If he’s lucky, 53 years later he’ll still think it’s one of the coolest songs ever written. Hopefully it will stir up positive memories for him in his adult years. Maybe that boy has candy stashed somewhere in his room in hopes that his brother won’t find it. If he’s truly lucky, he’s got a relative that is a great cook, who loves to entertain, and he’s looking forward to Sunday lunch at his or her house in the near future. He might not be in touch with the sensory connections to his memory banks yet, but if he is truly fortunate, he’ll be able to spend quiet moments in his adult years reflecting back on the gifts those memories hold through sound, smell, sight, and taste. He will be a blessed boy, indeed.


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