Food Memory

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Picture your favorite meal. If you don’t have a favorite meal, picture a favorite food.

What does it look like? What colors are there? How does it smell? Does it have a sound? Does it hiss or sizzle? Does it crunch?

Now, think about eating it. How does it feel in your mouth? What do you taste?

Get in there and give it space in your mind. Instead of saying ‘savory,’ or ‘spicy,’ think about the ingredients that go into your favorite meal. Can you taste the caramelization on the onions? Feel the texture of the grated parmesan or the squish of warm tomato sauce into your mouth when you bite down? Are there warm parts and cool parts mixed together? Is there garlic? What kind of peppers are those? How does curry taste and how do you feel when you taste it?

Now that you’re in here, consider this: why is this your favorite? Is it the flavor? Or when you think about how much you like it, do you think about specific times you enjoyed it? When you pictured eating this meal, were you surrounded by treasured people? Were you snuggled in a blanket on your couch watching a show you love?

If you haven’t already, think about a time when you ate that beloved thing. Even if it’s that time last week when you bought three Taco Bell Chalupas in the drivethrough. Think about how you felt then, and how eating the thing you love so much made you feel.

The food we eat is inextricably linked to our emotions, and our memories. The subject fascinates us. So much so that we write books about it,  and pilgrimage back to younger days with the foods of our youth. The topic comes to mind this December in particular, because I’ve managed to be almost completely divorced from the memory foods of Christmas past. I found myself suddenly jonesing for dark chocolate-covered sponge candy, with a depth so abrupt that it surprised me. Honestly, even when well made the candy isn’t that good. It’s dry and frequently teeth-cracking hard. But it was on the table when I was small, next to the dish of unshelled nuts, the chewy divinity, and the soft-centered strawberry candies in their red foil wrappers.

Food is a portal to our past. When we make Grandma’s potato salad recipe, eat Mom’s “250-Dollar Cookies,” and Aunt Kayleen’s Cherry Cheesecake Bars, we time-travel.

When I make beef stew, I am learning it again, how to roast vegetables and deglaze a pan in the yellow kitchen of a Navy Senior Chief, with a dachsund like a miniature Irish setter at our feet. I’m not who I will be yet there, but I’m on my way, and for the first time in my life I am comfortable with strangers.

When I boil the eggs and potatoes and dig the jar of Miracle Whip out of the refrigerator for Grandma’s potato salad, I’m there in her kitchen with the shellacked Colorado scene over the sink, the scratched yellow Pyrex bowl, and the sound of her voice. I am fourteen and feel special with this secret recipe of hers, and promise myself I’ll never forget how.

Or there is baked brie in a phyllo pouch and I am eight and desperately in love with my creative aunt and uncle who’ve come for Christmas, in the cut glass blue of my grandparents’ sunroom, and I feel like I’m looking into a world I never knew existed. All I want to do is stay here, because here I feel like I can be myself completely.

I taste the cinnamon, clove and peel in a glass of sweet mulled wine, it doesn’t matter where I am – it’s Christmas in my first apartment, with its endlessly magenta carpet and cupboards, and the massive tree in the corner is my grandmother’s and it’s full of lights.

Not every recipe is right. Not every mouthful is a transportation. Sometimes buffalo sauce is just buffalo sauce, and I don’t think about my first day on my first job or the sad Christmases after my parents’ divorce. Sandwich cookies don’t always take me back to the dark-paneled church kitchen, blessed cool sanctuary from the June heat. And to quote Proust (as the earlier mentioned Aeon article does), too much of a thing renders its magical properties inert; “the potion is losing its virtue.”

But sometimes they are right. Sometimes the pan of enchiladas, bottle of Orbitz, Bit O Honey bar, Chateaubriand opens a portal and presents a memory. The magic is good and solid; perhaps explainable with biochemistry and psychology but still magic for that.

Like the food in front of you, savor it.

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