At first, when I was in grade school, it was more like a smell that would waft through the back of my throat, followed by a hint of a taste. It resembled peanut butter, at least that taste is close to what most people would recognize. More accurately, it resembled a strange concoction made of sesame seeds that my mother would sometimes acquire from the foreign gourmet section of the grocery store in Rapid City. We lived in Edgemont, a town of some 2500 souls then, but now a nearly abandoned relic of 774 idle stragglers. Rapid City was the closest thing to a city in the western half of South Dakota of 1958, a couple of hours drive through prairie lands where once grazed millions of bison. Rapid City had a population 40,000 then (and even now only 70,000), and seemed quite altogether a city.
Mother called it "helva" and she had tasted it when the family lived in Türkiye when I was an infant. I remember the first time she saw it in the supermarket she cried out in surprise at finding it in America.
"I haven't had helva since we left Turkey," she exclaimed when she saw the can in the meagre import section. "I must have this!" she said as she placed several cans in her shopping cart. About ten years before the family had lived in the back woods of Turkey, where father was a consultant to the government of Turkey. Mother took the mystery cans home and hoarded them carefully for special occasions or particular guests, but I knew where the stash was and found the mixture strangely compelling. Among the ranching folk of Edgemont, my parents were considered cosmopolitan because they had lived in a foreign county, and this constituted proof of their elite status, for me and for the community.
The ground sesame seeds evoked for me a strange sensation. It reminded me of some similar but distinct taste from my earliest memories. I tried to concentrate on how that mystery food from so long ago tasted, but I couldn't quite wrap my mind around it. I would let the candy-like fibrous mass slowly melt in my mouth and try to squeeze from it the memory of what it reminded me of. At ten, I was no longer a baby, and was beginning to develop a sense of nostalgia. I begged my mother to buy "Pablum" for breakfast cereal, even though it was marketed for infants. To adults, I suppose, it signified "something that is trite, insipid, or simplistic," but I had a tangible and sentimental attraction to Pablum. The mild cereal taste and soft pasty structure brought me into a feeling of being coddled, like having my back scratched. This emotional space was situated somewhere near the dawn of my conscious mind.
Helva scratched away at a deeper part of my subconscious mind, a time even before Pablum. With the Helva, I couldn't get all the way there, there was some intermediary that Helva reminded me of, but I didn't have a name for that deeper morsel of the ultimate comfort food. If I closed my eyes as a the dollop of Helva dissolved into fluidity on my tongue, I could almost get there to grasp the taste of what I craved. Once the Turkish treat had all been eaten, I found that I could conjure the taste of the secret unknown potion purely from my memory. That memory would come to me throughout the years that followed, often unpredictably. I would be sitting there in an idle moment, midpoint between my last intake of victuals and the one to come. Astride memory and anticipation, their corrupting influence was minimal when that taste would once again begin in the back of my throat and linger there taunting me with questions of its identity. Sometimes months would pass between the intrusions of these sensory memories, but they never actually left me. The solution to its identity came slowly, mediated by a protein shake.
In Houston there has been a significant Middle Eastern here presence for decades. When I first came to town I shopped at Antone's Deli where I would find "Halvah" as the imported bilingual label spelled its product. I would eat falafel there from time to time, or gyro sandwiches. Later a student of mine from Lebanon introduced me to Baba Ghanoush and Hummus, and in a few more years these could be found at the Whole Foods grocery store. Eventually, I learned that hummus was easy to make and I resolved to try my hand at the recipe. It was a simple set of ingredients: lemon juice, garbanzo beans, tahini and garlic. I became fond of hummus and thus tahini became a staple in my refrigerator. Like Halvah, it is made from sesame seeds, but tahini is far different in texture. Halvah is like the inside of a Butterfinger candy bar, but less dense and more fibrous. Tahini is more like runny smooth peanut butter. There is no sugar added, so it can't be mistaken for candy. Helvah can be spooned up and eaten like a confection, but tahini seems to be reserved for recipe concoctions or spread on toast like its American cousin.
Then one morning I was out of the walnuts that had been my healthy-fat contribution to the protein shake I had been having for breakfast. I substituted tahini and was pleased with the taste of the new additive. It soon became a staple for my shakes, even when I had walnuts on hand. Some subtle flavor in the mix was strangely soothing, familiar and comforting. As I made these morning shakes, it became my habit to lick the tahini spoon of the remnants remaining after I allowed the spoonful to slide onto the blueberry-apple-banana-oat mixture. Gradually, I came to realize that the tahini was the mysterious taste from my childhood I had been looking for. The realization was slow, and depended on changing brands from Biladi to Joyva, the latter roasted with a nuttier flavor. The mysterious taste reached deep into my childhood and lingered on my palate, infusing the back of my throat with a distinctive roasted nutty flavor. Eureka!
But why tahini? I moved to Turkey when I was just beginning to walk. I suppose I was eating baby food, probably made from fresh ingredients pureed through a Foley Mill, a strange kitchen implement used to make applesauce. I still have that same Foley Mill my mother must have used in Turkey; I use it to strain cranberries for my cranberry-kumquat compote. Mother considered the Turks rather primitive, and eating in Turkey for her was a dangerous international adventure. I doubt there was any peanut butter there, and in those days peanut butter was one of the first solid foods brought into a toddler's diet. I suspect that tahini was substituted for peanut butter and may have been my first favorite food. So now it is back, and my early childhood is now brought into my geriatric present.
As from the poem by T. S. Eliot:
... the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time