A couple of weeks ago, I had something to eat I hadn't had in years. It was something I’d fantasized about, and as with many fantasies, the reality fell short.
It was a fluffy, puffy cloud of pink cotton candy, straight out of the drum.
As any cotton candy aficionado knows, the food police have ruined the whole idea by requiring that it be put into plastic bags for cleanliness. But I was attending an A's game at the Oakland Coliseum, and to my delight, the vendor asked me if I wanted my cotton candy freshly made. I looked at him as if he'd just offered me a ride in a time machine.
But it was not the way I remember cotton candy. It didn’t taste as sweet. It didn’t crystallize in the air the way I expected.
There are probably multiple reasons for this. First, our taste buds, like everything else, age as we do. They get less sensitive (this is apparently why every restaurant in Palm Springs, including the Italian ones, forgoes spices in its food). Second, my primary venue for cotton candy as a child was the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Perhaps a necessary ingredient to perfect cotton candy is salty sea air moistening selected crystals and turning them from wispy to hard and from pink to magenta. I can still remember the light crunching of the sugar and the incipient rotting of my teeth.
But it's not just cotton candy. I used to love fast food — Jack in the Box, Arby’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Up until recently, when I was on my own for dinner, I would visit KFC. I haven't been for quite a while. I can't tell if it's the memory of the greasiness that's deterred me, or the distant sound of my spouse's voice saying, "If you sit quietly while you eat that, you can hear your arteries slam shut."
It's not just the health concerns that haunt me. There's something about the taste of fast food that seems ... different from when I was younger. It doesn't have the same pop on the tongue that it used to. Not rancid, but perhaps the same freeway exit.
And breakfast cereals. You know how Jerry Seinfeld used to have ten boxes of cereal on a shelf in his kitchen on his TV show? That was my idea of heaven. I mourned the passing from my childhood of Post Crispy Critters and Sugar Rice Krinkles. I loved the Kellogg’s Jumbo Pac — 18 perforated boxes that you could open, pour in the milk, and eat right out of. (The Product 19 and the Rice Krispies were always left over.)
I used to love Trix and Froot Loops, but not after they added the radioactive colors. In the last few years, I have bought Post Alpha-Bits or General Mills Frosty O's in the hopes of crunching into old memory, but even those have lost their appeal. This from a man who used to think of Cocoa Krispies as boxed heroin.
When I was a child, I looked forward to a time when I could afford to indulge in any kind of food I wanted. But I have been betrayed — whether by my mind, whispering about health concerns, or by my withering taste buds, straining to reproduce a forgotten memory, I do not know.
I can look at old pictures; I can listen to old recordings; I can touch old toys; I can inhale aromas. Taste, I fear, is the only one of the senses that can never be recaptured.