My mother says, "Close your eyes." She waits a moment, then adds, "Push it to the top of your mouth, and exhale slowly."
She says, "Let your mind relax."
I try. I drown out the clinking of glasses, taking of orders. The couple two tables to the right just got engaged. The guy at the bar buying a round just got promoted.
Drown them out.
Another moment, and she says, "Now tell me."
I concentrate, moving the lump of food to the left, to the right. Images zoom past, a memory zoetrope, herbal rolodex, and...
I tell her, "Salt, obviously. Black pepper. Cumin, oregano, and vinegar." She says, "And?"
I inhale slightly, a few more images popping up. "Onions and garlic? No, it's milder than that. Shallots. And scallion."
"Um... Something lemony. Not sweet enough to be the juice, not flowery enough to be lemongrass. Lemon oil?"
I move the food a millimeter backwards. My tastebuds pick up on the bitterness. "Lemon peel."
I hear her thinking; the sound of an inked nib slicing checkmarks into a sheet of parchment. She asks me, "How?"
I've exhausted this forkful, so I swallow it and procure another. "Concentrate," she says, in that nagging authoritative tone. I move small pockets of air back and forth through my nostrils, trying to discern everything that happened to every ingredient, every thought of the chef. The way my mother talks about it, you'd think you could tell a person's life—past, present, and future—through taste alone. Something mystical.
It finally hits. The slight scent of smoke. "Faintest hint of caramelization. He cut the peel, flexed it to release the oil, and fried it with the shallots and scallions." A moment later, I add, "In grapeseed oil."
She says nothing for a while, so I open my eyes, and ask, "Can I enjoy my meal now?"
She smiles and says, "Not yet. But you're getting closer. Now dig in."