Food and Memory

I stood at the curb, on a corner of Insurgentes Sur in Mexico City, tapping my foot impatiently, watching the traffic hurtling by at 7382 feet above sea level, dozens of men hanging on to ladders hooked to swaying buses, diesel smoke spewing from exhaust pipes, and tinkling mariachi music fading away in the roar of engines and horns. At last the light changed, and I darted across the street, my friend Sherry a few steps behind me.

“Whew,” she panted, “can you believe this? I can hardly breathe.”

We, two 19-year-olds, headed straight for the little restaurant we’d noticed earlier when the van brought our study group to the hotel that afternoon. Now the tiny green and red Christmas lights twinkled under the eaves, and dozens of laughing people sat at tables covered with white tablecloths, eating off large oval platters filled with meat, tortillas, beans, rice, vegetables. Antonio Aguilar’s voice crooned over the loudspeaker and a waiter dressed in black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt motioned for us to sit at one of the tables. “Gracias,” we murmured as he bowed and handed us menus laminated in slick plastic.

I chose chicken flautas, after seeing another diner’s plate overflowing with those fried tacos filled with shredded chicken, drenched in thick cream and garnished with flowery radishes and lime wedges.

And that dish seared something forever in my mind. The crunchiness of the flautas, paired with the creaminess of the guacamole and the crema, seasoned with a squirt of fresh lime, and fired with the hot bite of green salsa. Whenever I encounter any of these tastes or textures on my plate, when I smell tortillas frying or hear Antonio Aguilar’s voice, memories of that night leap into my consciousness and transport me – figuratively anyway – back to that moment, the darkness of the velvet black sky and sounds of that vibrant city, the clatter of plates and the Babel-like chatter of fellow diners.

And, oh yes, those daiquiris that packed a big wallop at 7382 feet above sea level.

Memory can be a fickle sprite for a lot of reasons.

Food memory underlies a lot of today’s conversations, artistic endeavors, politics, and economics. In Swann’s Way, Proust employed his now well-worn example of madeleines to evoke food memory, M. F. K. Fisher stirred up her food memories by writing of the “grayish-pink fuzz my grandmother skipped off a spitting kettle of strawberry jam,” and perhaps you yourself recall from childhood a certain candy bar, one that – the minute you taste it or even just catch a whiff of it – instantly sends you back to a darkened theater with Daffy Duck prancing around on the screen.

For it is true, as John S. Allen wrote in The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food, that “… on a day-to-day basis, from the moment we are born until the moment we die, there is nothing that concerns us more than food.” We could, if pressed, write the story of our lives by listing our more persistent food memories. But how good is memory? What do we really remember? What do we forget?

Memory comes in many guises, but food memory most often first tiptoes in through the nose, as is the case with my flautas. Olfactory memory, as it is called, as opposed to declarative memory and procedural memory.

Some factors behind food memories:

1. Circumstances – emotional – surrounding the ingestion of a particular food or dish
2. The food itself
3. Who cooked it
4. Exotic ingredients or location
5. Positive or negative reaction to tastes

What good are food memories? This is a question I ask myself a lot, because, for one thing, the food-recall instruments used by nutritionists demonstrate the faultiness of food memory. Many diarists, for example from the British Raj period, write of the multiple dinners and picnics they attended, spreading a lot of ink and gossip in the process, but drawing a veil over what the menu included.

More to the point, why didn’t people in the good old days write more specifically about what they ate? Researching food habits often leaves us inferring a form of truth from menus, cookbooks, ledgers, archaeological evidence, oral history, hearsay, and just plain guessing.

Food memory, such an important part of our lives, so rarely recorded or even acknowledged. Food memory is really culinary autobiography, if you think about it. And, what’s more, since memory can be faulty, how much truth is there when all is said and done?

Tortillas
Tortillas ready for the frying pan (Credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Hello, Tony, thanks for the comments. Enjoy your month off.

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  2. A fabulous post. I am trying to remember good food memories from my past, when I lived in Ireland. After living in multi-ethnic Johannesburg for 20 years it is difficult. I have developed of course, in this fertile culinary pasture. Meanwhile Ireland has also changed. I will not be going ‘back’ in some sense. But damn sure I am taking a month’s supply of vitals with me. New life starts Tuesday. BTW I will turn up as AntonioPastaZA in future – I quit Unisa.

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  3. chef mimi says:

    A fabulous post. I have many food memories from growing up – from the smel on wild onions in the countryside in France where my grandmother lived, picking mirabelles from the trees, and mushrooms from the ground. I loved remembering the snap of German sausages, and my first kumquat. As an adult my memories are enhanced by what you were mentioning as one of the memory factors. If you have a picnic of great food on the side of a highway, you might remember that you had to have that picnic of great food. But if the picnic it ouside in a beautiful field in southern france with perfect weather, then it’s really special, and not forgettable!!!

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  4. Kitty, I am the same way, food first in most of my more solid memories!

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  5. Kitty Morse says:

    Than you, Cynthia, for another thoughtful post. Most of my memories relate to food, the people who prepared the food, the ingredients, the marketplaces. Indeed, a banquet of memories.

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