I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
There are a lot of reasons to love the 2001 movie The Princess Diaries: Julie Andrews playing her rightful role as queen, blonde Mandy Moore at the peak of her singing career, ’90s teen heartthrob Erik von Detten before we all completely forgot about him, and Anne Hathaway before the internet turned against her and then decided she was okay again.
But for me, the element of the movie that has always stood out the most is the palate cleanser. You know, that mysterious bright green frozen thing that Mia (Hathaway) accidentally eats an enormous spoonful of during her very first post-makeover state dinner? To give a quick refresher: Mia has recently learned that she’s the princess of the tiny, invented European nation-state called Genovia. Fresh from getting her eyebrows waxed and her hair permanently straightened, she’s at her very first event as a royal. Mid-meal, she’s given a green treat in a crystal dish and told by the Genovian prime minister that it’s served “in between courses, to cleanse the palate.” She doesn’t realize it’s frozen, takes an enormous bite, and immediately starts yelping in agony because the brain freeze is unbearable.
When I watched this scene for the first time, my 10-year-old self was incredibly intrigued. I needed to know everything about these alleged “palate cleansers.” Were they real? What flavor were they? Where could I find one?
After asking my mother in about a million different ways how I could try a palate cleanser for myself, she made a reservation at one of the fancier restaurants in my hometown of Dallas. Not only had she called ahead and confirmed that the place does, in fact, serve palate cleansers, she specifically requested that we be served a green-colored one (my mom is the best, and I am the worst). When the palate cleanser arrived at our table, I pretended to take a huge bite and freak out just like Mia did in The Princess Diaries — which likely further humiliated my mother after she had already forced the restaurant to devise a custom-colored palate cleanser, on top of shelling out big bucks for a tasting menu. After all was said and done, the sorbet was … fine. It was flavored like mint, but it tasted more like ice. It didn’t have that bright color, or the buttery texture and scoopability I had envisioned. It wasn’t served in a fancy crystal glass. And it wasn’t even all that refreshing!
To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I had hyped such a specific version of this experience so intensely in my mind. The movie had somehow convinced me that tasting this single dish would be a revelation — but alas, it was just a movie. Reality does not always allow for a satisfying conclusion.
Still, over the next several years, whenever The Princess Diaries would make its frequent appearances on Freeform (née ABC Family), my takeaway — more so than the fact that Mia’s starving artist mother lives in the coolest firehouse-turned-loft in the nicest part of San Francisco, or that Sandra Oh is a sleeper hit as Principal Gupta — was a longing for that palate cleanser that only grew stronger with every re-watch. And I was not the only one. Bloggers have attempted to re-create the palate cleanser, BuzzFeed named it an “iconic food” from the Disney movie canon, and model and Justin Bieber fiancée Hailey Baldwin even tweeted about it.
As a food writer, the palate cleanser moment was the first time I ever had that inkling that’s now a pretty common occurrence for me: I read about a dish and become so intrigued that I can’t stop thinking about it. It was the moment I realized that food could inspire an all-consuming fascination — that a dish could be more than just a dish — something that furthered your understanding of the world, and changed you.
I never found a frozen treat to satisfy that palate cleanser itch until a few months ago, when I was having dinner with some friends at the New York restaurant Atla. For dessert, the restaurant serves this incredibly smooth sorbet flavored with avocados, sorrel, lime juice, and olive oil. It was rich, tangy, elegantly plated, and — dare I say — palate-cleansing? It may have been a dessert, but it was everything I ever dreamed that Genovia state dinner treat could be. My multi-year culinary quest was finally accomplished.
There have been a lot of food-centric scenes in movies that have since delighted me — the pesto pasta Jennifer Lopez enjoys with a glass of red wine while watching Antiques Roadshow in The Wedding Planner, or the iconic vanilla custard “I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me” pie Keri Russell makes in Waitress. But there’s nothing that has been so simultaneously mystifying and fascinating to me as the palate cleanser in The Princess Diaries. After all, it was the very first inkling of my career to come — and it gave me a fondness for Anne Hathaway that has endured the test of time … and the internet.