The Smell of Walnuts

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The Smell of Walnuts

The author bends to drink a bright orange colored cocktail made with pumpkin.
This was not the moment when I smelled the walnuts. That would come a short time later when the chef placed the squid dish in front of us. The herb in this cocktail was the reason I lifted the plate of squid close to my nose and found my grandmother's date nut bread. Without it, I would have only had a lovely dinner.

You either liked it or you didn’t. The dark bread with its sticky texture. We would cut thick slices of it and spread margarine into its cracks. The tase of it sweet in our mouths.

We only got date nut bread once, maybe twice a year. It was one of the two things that I remember my grandmother making for Christmas. The other one was mashed “turnips,” which was really a rutabaga, a word my grandmother refused to admit existed.

In the past eighteen years, Christmas has changed. There is no date nut bread to spread margarine on. There is no pot of mashed turnips on the stove for the family to trick someone new into thinking it is sweet potatoes. There is no extended family crammed into my mother’s home. There were only five of us around the same kitchen table where my grandmother, grandfather, uncles, aunts, cousins, and my family sat not that long ago.

Spurred on by nostalgia, I bought a loaf of date nut bread from the grocery store a few weeks ago. I heated up a slice and bit into it, knowing that it was not dark enough to be the same as my grandmother’s bread. It was not sticky, and I could not forgive it for that.

But maybe that unfortunate loaf of bread is why I noticed the comforting smell of warm walnuts in the dish I ate recently at the Gunshow in Atlanta. The meal did not match up to the memories it stirred up in my mind. But the walnuts were there and in the next few courses I found the real turnips and then, the texture of grandmother’s version of them in the cauliflower mash. And suddenly the crowd of people around me is family, my family. I see them clearly. They are tucked around the big table in the living room, the smaller one in the kitchen, the two card tables in the living room, and every spot of furniture and carpet that was big enough for a person to sit on.

I take another sniff of the warm walnuts on the plate in front of me, and I picture them soaking in a bowl of hot water. Yet, it is not the walnuts that were in that bowl, it was the dates. My memory was wrong.

Looking back, we did not have many of those magical moments that I remember before it all began to separate. Grandpa left us that first year and then, little by little the threads began to unfurl from the weaving. The final three-thread cord was five strands this year.  A large dish of lasagna and a bowl of cheese biscuits took the spots of the ham and Aunt Maryann’s cornbread dressing. It was not the same, but then again, it was.