Proust had his madeleines, Harrison has his barolo, and I’ve got my coneys. The sense of smell is supposed to be the most powerful sense of all. When triggered, the olfactory nerve activates a pleasing (or perhaps not so pleasing) recollection of the scent that can pry open long shuttered pathways in our brains, releasing a flood of submerged memories. Coneys have that effect on me. Whenever I get of whiff of one, it transports me back to the old Skyline in Kenwood, a room that could truly claim to be a “parlor”—an absurdly decorous word to describe a place where chili is consumed. Reliably dim and hushed, with a U-shaped counter surrounding the steam tables and griddle in the center, it looked like it had been beamed straight from Edward Hopper’s subconscious. I loved the place as much as I loved the food served there, and the fact that the price was right didn’t hurt either.
It’s funny how the simple, unadorned meals—a great chili dog or five-way or burger or bowl of soup—can stick in your mind the same way you might remember a hole-in-one. I ate (make that devoured) my first lobster with my father on a jetty in Rockport, Massachusetts when I was about 12. Just us sitting at an outdoor picnic table with some drawn butter and lemon wedges, our lobsters, and a lot of napkins. I can still see the little fry hut where we got them, a steamy, cramped space with mounds of live shellfish waiting to meet their fate and one guy in the middle manning the cooktop. I encountered my first raw clam at a long-gone Cape Cod institution called Thompson’s Clam Bar, where in the ’70s you could order a plate of 10 for about a buck. And just thinking about the chicken tacos with tomatillo salsa from a little place called El Parasol conjures the crisp mountain air of northern New Mexico and a vision of another picnic table a few paces off the high road to Taos.
What brings all of these feverish foodie dreams to mind is another snapshot lodged in my occipital lobe: Watching my daughter try chili for the first time. She wasn’t interested in anything chili-related on our first family visit to Skyline, nor on the 10th visit, nor the 15th. All of my cajoling and beseeching fell on deaf ears. It took the influence of her best friend to get her to even try the stuff, and in a most novel way. Rather than dive right in with a coney or three-way, she opted to tiptoe in. She orders a plate of plain spaghetti with a bowl of chili on the side, then spends most of the meal daintily dipping individual oyster crackers into the blessed murk. It’s something to see. Some day I hope the scent unlocks a trove of memories that bring her as much joy as the York Peppermint Pattie she savors at the end of the meal clearly does now.