I don’t really remember my grandfather very well, for he died just a month before I turned 14. Yet he left a legacy that lies hidden deep in my brain, a usually dormant place where I apparently shelve all my food memories. But in the right circumstances, and with the right stimulus, that place – and my nose – conjures up the man, gruff and impatient and filled with love for his little plot of earth. Bobo – the name a lisping cousin bestowed on him and having nothing to do with Bobo the Clown – could grow just about anything. And he did, on two hard-scrabble little lots he owned in Ocean Beach, California, one of San Diego’s celebrated beach towns.
All I need to do is sniff air perfumed with the essence of apricots (Prunus armeniaca) and there he is, in his overalls, rubbing the cracked skin on his plump fingers. Not too long ago, when I passed a display of hundreds of apricots in my local food market, the sweet, cloying fragrance sent me right back to Bobo’s garden, a place where I’d spent days of my childhood picking apricots from the lone apricot tree, eating strawberries right from the dirt-hugging plants, and hunting for voracious garden snails – we each received a penny for every snail we plucked off the plants and handed them to Bobo, who dumped them into empty Folger’s coffee cans, the large red kind. We never asked what he did with them.
That apricot tree grew fat and happy in that sandy soil, tended carefully by my grandfather. Snug against the stucco walls of the tiny detached garage, that tree produced hundreds of the soft, buttery-yellow apricots. Romantic that I am, I wonder if Bobo ever knew that the apricot originated in China over 5000 years ago. Roman legionnaires took apricots back home with them from the Middle East, and then the fruit proliferated around the Mediterranean. Apricot trees have been grown in France for a couple of thousand years, particularly in the fascinating Languedoc-Rouissillon region.
Now, what I need to make clear here is that California apricots love a bit of chill in order to become, well, apricots. Ideally, 500 hours, but some alternative varieties exist, bred to thrive with fewer than 300 hours of wintery chill. Southern California was not really apricot country in those days and the low-chill breeds likely did not exist. Somehow, though, Bobo coaxed that tree into giving him enough apricots so that Grandma could make jars and jars of apricot jam. And we children could sit at the base of the tree and pry open the sun-like fruit with our dirty fingers, flicking the small flattish seeds into the air, and plopping the juicy fruit into our mouths, wiping our lips with the backs of our hands, smearing even more dirt across our cheeks as we did.
Years later, in France and in Morocco*, I slathered apricot jam on croissants (horrors!) and tartines alike. There’s something soothing about licking a spoon coated with sticky jam the color of the sun, especially when that sun seemingly has disappeared into a wintery abyss with Persephone and Hades. I found the persistent presence of apricot jam intriguing.
So when a certain odor tickles the sensors inside our noses, there’s no telling what memories or reactions will well up. The biology – simply stated – is that the olfactory nerve rests close both to the amygdala, where experiences of emotions and memories occur, and the hippocampus, associated with memory.
With the 8 apricots I piled into a big plastic bag at the grocery store, I baked an apricot tart, modeled on the one in the first volume of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961).
But food memory is much more complicated than just biology. Or cooking something delicious to bring back childhood memories.
In our sterile, odorless world, where we might walk blocks without smelling anything other than car exhaust, where the only public food-related odors pour out from the exhaust fan at the grocery store cooking fried chicken in stale grease or the foul popcorn sold at the movie theater, what memories will those create? Let’s ask it another way: are food memories of this sort important? Do these memories comfort us in the dark, making us feel closer to long-gone relatives? Are we motivated to recreate memories in our kitchens, for solace or to try to understand why and how favorite family/cultural dishes lasted and others didn’t? And what about taste aversions? These surface in much the same manner as positive memories, don’t they?
Whatever the truth and inner meanings of food memories, I know that in seeking answers about my grandfather’s apricot tree, my father reminded me about small things I’d forgotten, such as where the tree was planted and how my grandmother used the fruit, testifying to the faultiness of my verbal memories. There’s no contesting the vividness and immediacy of my olfactory memories, however.
*Moroccan cooks make a delicious tagine with dried apricots and lamb or beef.
Bermúdez-Rattoni, Federico, Núñez-Jaramillo, Luis, and Balderas, Israela. (2005) Neurobiology of Taste-recognition Memory Formation. Chemical Senses 30 (suppl.): i156-i157.
Buchanan, David. (2012) Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Foods, and Why They Matter. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Professional Guide – Abricots des Régions de France (Apricot Growing in France)
Squire, L. R. (1992). Memory and the hippocampus: a synthesis from findings with rats, monkeys, and humans. Psychological Review 99(2): 195–231.
Vossen, Paul and Silver, Deborah. Growing Temperate Tree Fruit and Nut Crops in the Home Garden and Landscape
© 2013 C. Bertelsen