Syns of My Youth

In Merced, the little city where I was born, not a single retailer carried Le Creuset. My mother had become enamored with the heavy cast iron and enamel cookware after watching numerous episodes of “The French Chef” on PBS. So, on a weekend trip to San Francisco, while my mother, my sisters and I were shopping for shoes on Union Square, my father slipped down into “The Cellar,” Macy’s famous housewares department. He bought a squat Le Creuset Dutch oven in a color the company called “Flame.” My dad managed to sneak the package into the trunk of the family station wagon without anyone noticing. On Sunday night, when we had returned to the Central Valley, my father surprised my mother with the large, orange pot.

I hated it.

The smoldering color of that pot made the back of my throat blaze with a scratchy, abrasive pain. My mother would prepare the most delectable Coq au Vin, its succulent aroma wafting through our home. I could appreciate the fragrance of the simmering dinner from the family room of our California ranch-style home, or if I was in the kitchen, with my back turned to the stove. But the minute my eye caught the color of the Dutch oven, I felt as if I had instantly developed strep.

I was about eight when “Flame” Le Creuset began replacing the aging Pyrex bakeware my parents had received as wedding presents. The Dutch oven was followed by an au gratin, a terrine and a kettle, all bright as embers. Along with my sisters, I learned to cook with those pots, the three of us making scalloped potatoes a la Julia, layering thin slices of russets into the casserole, its milky enamel lining a cool reprieve from the searing orange exterior.

White gave me an entirely different sensation, as if I was holding a fine, light powder in my mouth, weightless and gelid, enveloping my tongue, my gums, my teeth. This was true when I looked at any white item, just as all burnt orange objects scratched my throat.

But this doesn’t happen as much anymore. I seem to have lost the synesthetic experience of oral color->tactile perception. The only additional hue for which I can recollect a childhood physical sensation is pink. I would get a tingle in my pharynx, somewhat similar to the tickle that preceeds a sneeze. But, like other colors, pink rarely triggers any sensory impressions, even though I can clearly remember what it once felt like to percieve colors in my mouth.

A hallmark of synesthesia is its continuity. Most synesthetes report experiencing their synesthesia as part of their earliest memories, and those conflated senses remain stable over one’s lifetime. But it seems that some synaesthesias can lessen or completely vanish. In fact, It has been suggested that we are all born with synaesthesia but that it tends to disappear within the first few years of life (e.g. Maurer & Mondloch, 2004). This theory of synesthesia as an inherent neurological feature of infancy and early childhood that disipates (for most of us) as our brains develop matches well with Simon Baron-Cohen’s research.

It’s reasonable to me that over time, I’ve lost some of my synesthesias. It only vaguely hurts my throat when I look at burnt orange. Still, that color remains one of my least favorite hues, and I find it strange that my mother loved it so. When she died, I kept a single piece from her cookware collection, the low-rimmed au gratin pan. I never could get myself to bake with it in my own kitchen; as a mere memento, it was too bulky to keep. I dropped it at the Goodwill last year, where in a most serendipitous fashion, an alabaster Le Creuset Dutch oven was perched on a shelf of items for sale. I now make my own bubbling Coq au Vin, in a pot so white I can barely feel that mouthful of soft powder I once knew so well.

Carolyn “CC” Hart