I have been thinking about nostalgia lately, and that fine line between nostalgia and the sharp memory of times past. The OED defines nostalgia as ‘a sentimental longing for the past’, but is there any longing without sentiment? By its very nature, emotion is involved. Though still in my youngish years, I have much to treasure from the past. My family has gone from 6 to 3, and now back up to a different formation of six. When we were children our family had dinner together every night. The dinner table was a racuous affair, I would giggle so much I would squirm in my chair. Food carries meaning beyond sustenance. It is nourishment, love, family, memory.
A cheesecake has borne witness to some of the first and last of these fractious family memories. My elder brother Kosti, one of us 3 remaining musketeers, has always had cheesecake for his birthday. I remember his last birthday before he left home, a pimply teenager, preparing to leave the fold. Like now there were only three of us there then, Eleni Sr having to make an emergency trip, our sister in trouble, our oldest brother Niko already off at university. But to show her love for her youngest son she could still prepare his favourite birthday cake. Food so often is a form of communication for us. I can still picture him in the backyard, looking down at this beautiful cake decorated with fresh strawberries, candles illuminating his hopes, the anticipation, a glimmer of sadness in that day.
Fast-forward 14 years, the next time I get to celebrate Kosti’s birthday with him, this time in North Carolina. We are older in years, and feel much older than we are. But marking his birth is not why I am there. I am there, we are all together, to be with our eldest sibling whilst cancer takes his life. On his birthday Kosti tells me all he wishes for is for Niko to be awake on his birthday. I spend much of the day in the kitchen, where I so often instinctively turn when I feel helpless, when I need to have some sense of control. I make a curry I know Niko cannot eat, but I make it soft, mild, baby-food-like, easy to swallow, just in case, an irrational, but totally necessary form of hope.
And of course I must make the cheesecake. Following an intuition, I make the cheesecake but I make it differently. Caring for Niko taught me to trust my intuitions-– to create something familiar, tied to the past, but also create something new, the possibility, the hope of the future. Filled with the feeling of wanting to be in two places at once, there, where I am, in North Carolina, where I need to be and will treasure forever; but also nostalgic for London, my home, my life, where I have put down my roots, where I will return to.
Brown sugar cheesecake
I wanted to re-create Spuntino’s brown sugar cheesecake -–my way of sharing a London experience that I knew Niko could not, never would, get to have. I have made this cheesecake a few times since then. It is an excellent recipe, and the ritual reconnects me with that day, that memory. It is not so much a longing, but a sharp, an intense reliving of what, as we mark time passing in days, in months, in years, slips only further away into the realm of memory, with the great maw of the future gaping in front of us, reminding us of the promise that life is always moving forward.
Niko never ate my brown sugar cheesecake, but he did give Kosti his birthday wish. He died the next morning, at the tender age of 33.
Recently I asked Kosti why he liked cheesecake so much-– he seemed caught off guard: “I just like it?” he responded. Some things don’t require a rationalisation. The intuition is strong enough.
In memory of my sweet brother Niko Harlan, who shared a love for food and life and was the biggest fan of my cooking.