What’s your earliest food memory? What triggers it to come up to the surface – is it a smell? A flavour? A texture? How does it make you feel? Does it envelope you in a warm, fuzzy haze of memory, whisking you back to a time and place long since gone? Or does it make your spine tingle with horror?
We often hear stories about someone’s grandma’s amazing apple pie; the recollections of Sunday’s well spent in granny’s kitchen, sifting flour, licking the spoon from the mixing bowl.
I don’t know about you, but those sorts of stories make me feel a mix of emotions, including the not so pleasant ones like envy and regret.
Neither of my grandmothers were the sort to create those kinds of memories; perhaps that had as much to do with a lack of opportunity as anything else, given we lived overseas, or several hours drive away, for most of my childhood.
Even so, I do have food memories of both of them: rancid dripping, festering on a kitchen worksurface, and the all pervasive aroma of unsmoked bacon fat. Not exactly the stuff of nostalgic dreams are they?
I do have other, nicer, food memories thankfully! Most of them originate from the years we spent living in Germany – when I first walked into a newly opened German supermarket here in the UK, the scent memory was so overwhelming that it brought on tears. Even though using those supermarkets is now a regular part of life again, those old associations remain, and it makes me smile in wonder every time.
I had a conversation with someone on instagram a while ago about an ’80s Marks and Spencer Lemon Madeira cake – a shared food memory that was so vivid, even just the thought triggered salivation! Simply typing these words is giving me the experience of the tartness of the lemon; the smooth silkiness of the icing; the finger licking (and hoover requiring!) crumble of the cake. I feel driven to go and bake so that I might satisfy my desire for that taste of a 1980s summer!
However, experience tells me that the disappointment of it not quite living up to my memories will keep my fingers on the keyboard, instead of going and grabbing the mixing bowl.
So why are food memories so powerful? It’s all because of your senses – you didn’t see that coming did you? It’s stating the obvious really isn’t it? But the key thing with food memories, over other types of memories, is that they utilise all of our sensory apparatus, along with all the nuances of the situational and emotional contexts that are going on around us at the time.
Whilst scent can create some of our most evocative memories because of the proximity of the olfactory bulb to the memory making areas of the brain – the amygdala and hippocampus – food memories have multiple layers that get laid down in the brain in a much more immersive way. To my mind it’s a fleeting from of time travel.
The Legacy of Food Memories
Before The Sensory Coach I ran an allergy friendly food business – mostly chocolate, but I also developed and sold packet mixes for bread and cookies. Before that I ran a paleo recipe website, which lead me to write two e-books: A Festive Feast and The Creatively Paleo Icecream Emporium.
The structural thread that runs through all of these endeavours is the importance of the legacy of loving memories.
When I was spending days, weeks, months and sometimes even years trying to develop an allergy friendly recipe, the thing that drove me was the desire for my own family not to miss out on what were often common cultural food memories, and for them to have a bank of family memories to carry with them into adulthood.
As an aside, whilst talking of food culture, if you have netflix then let me recommend a fascinating series I’ve been enjoying recently – Street Food – from the perspective of a person with a shed load of food allergies it’s horrifying, but if you ignore that, it’s a really good watch, and absolutely speaks to everything that I’m talking about in this post.
Tucked into a picture frame in my kitchen is a little card with the George Bernard Shaw quote:
There is no sincerer love than the love of food.
They (I don’t know who the ‘they’ is!) also say that cooking is love made visible.
This is certainly my perspective on cooking. When you take this into consideration, alongside the power of food memories, I hope, if you’ve fallen out of love with cooking, or perhaps never even been in love with it, you’ll rethink the value of spending a little time in the kitchen, laying down the strongest of memories for your loved ones; they’ll sustain them long after the kitchen has closed.
Maybe we could start thinking of nutritional value not just in terms of vitamins and minerals absorbed, but as the laying down of sustaining memories, building resilience with every dish we share.
if you need a little help getting started, then my allergy friendly chocoolate course is the perfect place to begin creating those memories.