Feasting on Memory

“Food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect,” Susan Whitborne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts.

What is your favourite food? Do you have one? Did you have one as a child? I think my favourites as a kid were fresh smoked kippers fried with butter and served with brown bread, homemade fritters (slices of potatoes that were battered and then fried), and goulash or any stew, as well as the mushrooms and wild foods we’d go out and pick.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that I have a favourite food.

Many of my memories do involve different foods. I can almost smell my grandmother’s house as she was baking apple pie, or feel the cold of the hearth under my bum as I sat there scraping out the cake batter remnants from the heavy, ceramic bowl. I can smell the lingering roast on a Sunday afternoon, or the drop scones on a Sunday morning, fresh with butter and hot from the griddle.

The smell of a Burger King or McDonalds brings me back to trips to the city with my father when I was a small child. Born with a hole in my heart, I’d have to make the trip to the hospital there quite often (it started at every two weeks, then every month, every three months, six months, then every year until I was eighteen). Whenever he took me to my appointment, we’d get fast food after. There wasn’t any kind of fast food in our town then, and it was such a treat. I still relish the taste of their fries, simply because it transports me to those moments of relief – I was okay, I was out of the hospital, and I had at least another year of freedom.

I wonder if my children will recall smells with love and wonder as they age – the smell of homemade waffles, the smell of cookies, coffee, and a myriad of different dinners?

As I grew older, I had a strained relationship with food and it became something I distanced myself from. I think in a way, I was distancing myself as much from the memories as I was from the food. I wasn’t happy at that time and food was the one thing that had always provided comfort and security.

Baked potatoes cooked in the bottom of a bonfire. Toast grilled in front of the gas fire when the power was out. The smell of wine lingering in the airing cupboard because it had to be kept somewhere warm.  Beans on toast. Cheese on toast. Nights in front of the telly with a baked potato and chicken kiev. I remember the warm, earthy smell of freshly dug potatoes, the sting of fresh gooseberries and rhubarb, the itch of rose-hips, and the bitter green of cabbage and brussels sprouts.

I didn’t cook because I didn’t want to be reminded of the possibility of being happy. I didn’t eat because I didn’t want to remember.

Now, I cook every day. I make so many different dishes – some from my family history and some new. Some shared from my husband’s family and some from recipe books. I grow my own garden, as my family did and enjoy the smells of freshly picked peas, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes.

Nearly all human cultures engage in feasting, in which past events or special occurrences are commemorated with an abundance of food. The practice probably began as a means to share temporary excesses of food among large groups of people so that it would not go to waste. Over time, food abundance has become a vehicle for memory enhancement at the cultural level. Feasts serve not only an abundance of food but an abundance of memories.

What are some of your memories connected to food? (One of my funniest and most tragic is at a funeral gathering, perhaps my grandfathers, and one of my great aunts asks me for “water”. Of course, I brought her cold tap water… she was mortified and told me, in no uncertain terms that she wanted “hot water, with lemon, a dash of sugar, and just a hint of vermouth” – not quite sure how a twelve year old would ever know that!!)