And On The Memory of Your Tastebuds, They Are All Umami
bitter; bell peppers
You are slicing bell peppers into ribbons when your man tells you that moving in together was a mistake. Next to the cutting board, you’ve measured out a thimble of hot pepper flakes, and the shrimp are shelled and deveined, cooling in the fridge until you’ve finished the rest of the prep. He asks if you heard what he just said. You keep slicing the pepper meticulously; you are proud of this one dish — shrimp fra diavolo — that you make well.
Before you left your job on the coast behind to move further inland with him, the chef at the restaurant had taught you the secret of making the dish really, really well — it wasn’t just the heat of the pepper flakes and the sweetness of the shrimp that gave his version of the dish its reputation as the best one around. It was the bell peppers, cut into matchsticks and added to the pan with the shrimp.
The chef taught you how to pick the right kinds of bell peppers when he took you to the farmer’s market one Saturday, flipping the peppers onto their stems and counting the points on their bottoms — See, the fewer points, the sweeter the pepper, he’d explained — holding your hand, holding the pepper — most people want the one or two pointed peppers. For my fra diavolo, I only use the four-pointed ones, he’d said, plucking the four-pointed pepper from your left hand as though it were a flower. You set down a two-pointed pepper — red and slick as a smear of cadmium red — and ask him why. He tells you to stick out your tongue, and where most men would seize the opportunity to make a rude joke, you trust the chef enough to do it without even really thinking.
He touches the back of your tongue lightly: Here’s where you taste the salt of the sauce, he says, before he softly touches the tip of your tongue, And this is where you taste the sweet of the shrimp. He slides his finger to the side of your tongue: But here and here, he says, these parts taste sour and bitter. The sour comes from the balsamic vinegar I add when I’m caramelizing the onions and garlic — but it’s the bell peppers, the bitter, that finish the dish and make mine different from anyone else’s recipe. The bitterness of the peppers makes sure that all your…