The taste of bad coffee. Very sweet, and made from instant coffee powder. The lady who runs the restaurant hands it over in small mugs, and then gives us plastic sleeves of creamer as if we hadn't just watched her mix the whole thing together. We don't mind that it's bad coffee, because we knew it would be bad before we bought it. And anyways the view across the road, into the greener parts of Manjhou, is beautiful. It's a pleasant summer day, we've been driving around for hours, and the lady who made the coffee is telling us where kids around there go to school.
The taste of corn. So much corn in all this food. It's in everything except the bread. We hadn't meant to come here. We were looking for another place, a place nearby. The woman behind the counter is very concerned about whether or not we enjoyed the food. My wife politely tells her that there's too much corn in everything, and that Italian food shouldn't have so much corn. At least the bread was good. We look out the window, at the road into Pingtung City, and feel that we've paid too much for too little. So. Much. Corn.
The taste of good pizza. Sitting inside a too-warm restaurant, wanting a beer, but my wife is too tired to drive home after lunch. One of my daughters is there, and there's a three-legged cat lying under a nearby table. I try to be friendly with the owner, but he's a very shy person and evades most of my questions. Outside, beyond a quiet park, the old Hengchun city wall absorbs heat from the sun. Ah, a beer. My kingdom for a beer.
The taste of a too-big bowl of noodles with peanut sauce. The owner/cook sits at a table behind us. He's talking to his grandson in Taiwanese. His grandson does his best to respond in the same language, but he's obviously more comfortable with Mandarin. The boy and his father have come over from Kaohsiung, a considerable distance from Gao Shu.
The taste of McDonald's. Not great, but not terrible. Sometimes you just have to drive up to Chaojhou and have McDonald's. Sometimes you have to do it. I wolf down my burger and fries like someone breaking a fast, while everyone in line stares at the American in the corner. I wash the burger and fries down with a Coke. I haven't had Coke in so long.
The taste of British beer. Somehow they had the Hobgoblin IPA at the 7-11 in Fenggang, and I bought their entire stock. I drink the cans over the course of a weekend, and when I finish the last of the cans I feel very sad. Surely it's better NOT to have access to beer that good all the time. Surely it's better to do without. And yet, while visiting other 7-11s, I always look for that beer, hoping it will appear.
Ten thousand farms to raise the ten thousand chickens, ten thousand pigs and ten thousand fish. Ten thousand other farms to grow the pineapples, mangoes and wax apples. Ten thousand trucks to bring in all the bad coffee, excellent beer, and whatever it is that McDonald's can be accused of making. Ten thousand cooks to cook the food, and ten thousand people to sell it. Ten thousand people, like me, eating the food, eating and remembering places they've been, and drinking and singing songs too loud in the street.
And behind every dish a place, and in every place a thing happening. Who's to say whether the memories come from the food, or the food from the memories?