What I love most about food is that it is so rarely just food. As humans, we are instinctive storytellers, and food is so often a part of the story: sometimes at the center, sometimes at the sidelines, and sometimes the steady constant that allowed for the rest of life to happen.
Ask anyone about a favorite memory, and you’ll find food somewhere in it: the potatoes with cheddar and chives a grandmother made for Thanksgiving, a cheese and tomato sandwich wrapped in wax paper packed every day for lunch, or fish and chips eaten on the pier while the wind threatened to blow the food to the seagulls.
Food is evocative, emotional, and uprooter of memories. Food creates space for gatherings, a reason to get together; it’s a common ground where we can all begin.
The Perfect Mango
I had my first mango the summer I turned 19, during a semester abroad in Guatemala. I had taken a public bus for five hours to cave swim in the beautiful Semuc Champey, a naturally formed limestone bridge filled with turquoise pools. After spending the morning exploring the twists and turns of the limestone caves with a candle, jumping off a 10-foot waterfall, and crawling between stalactites and stalagmites, I was hungry.
I decided to hike to El Mirador, one of Semuc’s most incredible viewpoints, and I bought a little plastic bag of sliced mangoes from a local vendor before I began. Summoning all the willpower for delayed gratification I could muster as a 19-year-old, I made myself wait to try my first mango until I reached the top.
The view from El Mirador was every bit as breathtaking as I had been told it would be. I stood for a few minutes, breathing hard, as I looked down at the blue lagoons below, at the mountains that stretched in every direction. Guatemala is a country of impossible beauty; every time you think you have seen the epitome of what it has to offer, it surprises you again with a view even more spectacular.
The mangoes had sloshed back and forth inside the plastic bag during my hike. They were so ripe and slippery that I had a hard time pulling the slices out. Eventually, I tipped the bag up to my mouth and let the slices slide in, juice running down my face.
The mango was perfect, but for me, it was so much more than a mango.
Standing there, on what felt like the top of the world, holding a fruit sold to me by a local vendor, meant that I had learned enough Spanish, enough about this country, to navigate my way here, to purchase food, to understand and follow directions. It meant I was making it in a new place, something that just weeks before had felt completely unattainable.
It was one of the happiest moments of my life: me, a mango, and a perfect view.
Memories, Old and New
I buy mangoes often here in the United States, and every time I bite into one, I remember that moment. Mangoes for me mean thriving: they are a tangible reminder that I am capable of more than I think I am.
Maybe that’s why I chose a mango for my salsa the other day, when we had friends over for dinner unexpectedly and I had to rummage through the fridge to find something that would go with a half-eaten bag of tortilla chips.
I am normally not an experimental cook, nor do I like to try a recipe for the first time with company over. But I saw the mango, perfectly ripe and ready, and maybe somewhere in my subconscious, I decided I was capable of trying something new.
I sliced it up, the juice on my fingers reminding me of that day in Semuc Champey, and tossed it in a bowl along with some chopped onions, green peppers, jalapeño, and olive oil. I threw in a few tablespoons of honey, salt, and pepper, mixed it all up, and invited our guests outside.
Our appetizer served as the backdrop for our conversation. While we ate in the golden light of early evening, taking turns dipping and passing the salsa, breathing in the smells of sausage cooking on the grill, I shared my story about the mango in Guatemala. Our friends shared other stories about being brave and taking risks, other stories about foods and their links to significant moments.
We lounged with our backs pressed against wicker chairs, watching our children run around the backyard and splash in the paddling pool between coming back to the table for more helpings of chips and salsa.
It occurred to me, as I stood up to take dirty dishes inside and prep the dinner plates, that being together here, outside on a perfect summer night, enjoying a new recipe born of a fruit so significant to me, could lend itself to a new memory. My daughter, maybe, could grow up linking this salsa in her mind to the long, carefree nights of childhood, the security of her parents talking and laughing on the porch, the wonder of staying up late enough to watch the fireflies come out.
That night, after our friends left, I wrote the mango salsa recipe down, and I’ve made it several times since. It’s quickly becoming a regular in our house—eaten with tacos, tortilla chips, or straight out of the bowl with a spoon.
Whatever memory my family grows up associating this salsa with, I hope it also reminds them to be brave, and that trying something new can be a very good thing.
Mango Jalapeño Salsa
- 1 large mango, ripened
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 2 small jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Toss all ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl.
Note: This salsa has a kick to it! If you are not a fan of heat, omit or reduce the amount of the jalapeño peppers.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com