The Corona lockdown has hit me hard. I am going absolutely berserk. Being in Egypt feels like an imposition now and I desperately crave for India. Billions of people around the world are in my situation at the moment and we are grasping for things that give us comfort, reaching out to some semblance of normalcy and re-creating stuff that soothes our souls. Food has always been a soul soother and both history and science back that fact. Thus, we see the present trend of people cooking beautiful dishes at home and sharing pictures on social media. These dishes are mostly comfort food: things that the lockdown has restricted from being available or items that are known to make us feel good. I am also cooking up a storm of curries, stir-fries, and dals: things that remind me of India. They take up a lot of time and effort and when Tarek reaches out for his bread and cheese instead of my dishes, explosive rows happen. During one such argument, he said, “You eat fish curry because it smells like the one your mom makes. I eat bread and cheese because it reminds me of my grandfather. It makes me feel happy”, The statement struck a note of truth and I sat down to research the power of food memories.
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My earliest understanding of food memories
Food memories have always made my father wistful. He has a special nostalgic gleam in his eyes, every time he remembered my grandmother’s (his mother-in-law) cooking and he was her favourite son-in-law. She was very fond of him, indulged his whims, and created feasts on the occasion of Jamai Shashthi, a Bengali festival that celebrates sons-in-law. My father grieved my grandmother’s death deeply and hardly ever had he sat down to eat dal without comparing it with her cooking. This sometimes irked my mother and as a child, I could not understand how such a trivial issue could be of importance. Today, as I sniff nostalgically every time I cook my mother’s fish curry, his emotions make sense to me and so does Tarek’s instinct of gorging on bread and cheese during the lockdown.
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How food memories get embedded in your subconscious
The human brain connects memories with senses. Each time we experience something, we recall the memories of it or similar sensations. All these connections are made in the amygdala (a part of the limbic system of the brain, and is the center for emotions). This trait is not only limited to the good experiences and it has helped humankind throughout the evolution process by helping with the simple decision of what’s good and what’s bad to eat. Over the eons of evolutions, even though the humans developed finer culinary habits, this trait continued working and starting connecting our memories with food experiences. In the words of Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Food memories involve very basic, nonverbal, areas of the brain that can bypass your conscious awareness. This is why you can have strong emotional reactions when you eat food that arouses those deep unconscious memories. You can’t put those memories into words, but you know there is ‘something’ that the food triggers deep within your past. The memory goes beyond the food itself to the associations you have to that long-ago memory, whether with a place or a person. Because food memories form without any conscious editing, they take on all the attributes of the situations in which they were acquired. They also can become associated with the activities involved in the act of cooking the food. Your recollection of family meals, similarly, take on an additional emotional meaning that then becomes associated with those smells and tastes.”
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The Proustian Moment i.e food memory
In his magnum opus, “In Search Of Lost Time” Marcel Proust recounted how eating a madeleine cake as an adult instantly evoked childhood memories of seeing his aunt dip her madeleine cake in tea. This gave rise to what is called the “Proustian moment” – any involuntary memory that evokes your past. Proustian moment explained a lot of things to me. For example, I realized that my father growing wistful while eating dal was due to the emotional connection he had with my grandmother or how the taste of watery, mild, nigella seed flavoured fish curry reminds me of my mother, my childhood days, and my home county a.k.a my safe place. It made sense as to why I was making a lot of non-Indian dishes that I learned from my friends from other countries and that in the process I was involuntarily re-creating my happy moments from the past. My brain was dredging up good memories and emotions associated with them and I was finding ways to make myself feel happier, safer, and more stable.
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Do food memories shape us into who we are?
The realization of the power of food memories inspired me to cook better, healthier, and include Akash in the process. The two of us love to chop, dice, and stir and of course, both of us adore food. I understood that involuntarily I was creating Akash’s most powerful emotional memories, associated with both the food he will eat and the atmosphere in which he will eat it and these will end up being part of his adult sense of self. In a recently published study, Elisabeth von Essen and Fredrika Mårtensson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences found that the positive associations between food and family establish a strong base on which future coping skills are built. Another intriguing notion found by von Essen and Mårtensson is that food choices and meals tell the much larger part of the story of who we are and how our lives have developed. Some intimate partners spend a lot of happy times in the kitchen together chopping, snipping, and sauteing while others prefer sitting down to a long and luxurious dinner. What we do not realize is that how we spend our food-related times together with our partners define a key element of our relationships. We involuntarily prefer partners who share our views on food, cooking, and mealtimes, or at least who accommodate our choices.
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The secret of using food memories as a secure emotional base
The shared love of food and cooking seal the deal for many romantic partners and according to scientific studies, our food memories reveal much about our growing up days, our home conditions, and how we behave as partners. In the cultural anthropological experiment, scientists conducted an intensive analysis based on food memories and they interviewed approximately 30 adults ranging from 18 to 40 years. In the interviews, participants were asked to describe major turning points in their lives and then to describe their relationship to food before and after the turning point. Three distinct approaches took shape from the interviews and all of them proved how food and attachment styles are connected for the participant. One developed connection involved “using food as a secure base” and the participants whose interviews fitted this pattern told of how the food they cooked and ate with their parents became associated with security and togetherness. They returned to memories of these good times when sharing meals with their adult friends, and remembered fondly the times they spent in the kitchen helping their mothers prepare simple nourishing meals.
Food connections and how they affect our relationships
The second connection showed a rocky history with food and the tendency to experiment with food fads. The participants of this approach shared similar growing up memories of eating anything that could be microwaved and having mothers who worked long hours. These people confessed of trying to eat better even though they find it tiring and especially the parents among this group strive hard to provide better and healthier food memories for their children. The third group of participants in the food memories experiment showed a more dismissive attitude toward food. These people had mostly undergone eating disorders as adolescents and young adults and their childhood are often characterized by painful upheavals or divorce of their parents. These participants eat only to stay alive and find it extremely difficult to be with partners who prefer to eat “proper meals” on a regular schedule and to spend time together both cooking and eating those meals. Integrating food with romance does not come easily to them and they find the task to be very challenging. Just like positive memories, unpleasant food experiences during childhood days can make a person off that item for good. A dear friend of mine cannot eat chicken simply because of one extremely unpleasant experience of being force-fed a revolting chicken dish during some family get-together. To begin with, the get-together was at an aunt’s whom he disliked and then the taste of the dish created such a deep impact, that even at 40, he cannot eat chicken.
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My food memories of dal, palm fruit hearts, and my mum
For food-focused individuals like me, many reflections on fond memories include food in some way or another. For example, my happy summer memories churn up eating juicy palm heart fruits, raw mango dal made by my mother, unripe jackfruit curry, and gorging on mushy, sweet mangoes. Although while having company, I eat slices of mangoes from a bowl with a fork, in private moments, I devour them as I did in my childhood days; by simply peeling the skin off and eating the flesh of the fruit until the pit is bone clean. That involves messy hands and even though I am a bit of a cleanliness fanatic, eating a ripe juicy mango like that creates an incredible satisfaction. It invokes memories of my cousins and me sitting at my grandmother’s farm table and relishing sweet summer mangoes during our summer holidays. The same goes for relishing fish head in privacy and every time we eat fish, Tarek leaves the head intact for me to savour it in peace. Needless to say, since I come from a country that is abundant with luscious fruits and fish and some of my happiest food memories revolve around the special effort my mother put in to cook fish items that I adored. She knew that those were my “happy” food and that her effort would make me feel loved and cared for. In a similar manner, a dish often transports me back to wherever I was when I first tried that flavour and the people with whom I shared the moment. Perhaps it is not just the food that triggered those memories, but also the experiences that were created while enjoying the food.
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The Japanese parenting habit of creating food memories
The physical act of enjoying the food itself lasts a few minutes, but the memory linked to that food experience stays for a lifetime. That is why, in Japanese culture, meal-times are family affairs that are made enjoyable by reducing food stress and pressure. Parents let their children enjoy food by experimenting with them rather than putting them on strict eating habits and they focus on the happy act of eating together as a family. It is a proven fact that the role of food and your food memories affect how you navigate your own life experiences. How do your feelings toward food affect your closest relationships as adults and food connections, especially in critical situations like the pandemic quarantine, can make or break how you and your partner’s closeness? That is why during this critical Corona lockdown phase, Tarek and I have come to understand, accommodate and make space for each other’s comfort habits. He no longer stares and sniggers at me when I eat some meals with hands and I leave him alone during his Kase and Wurst (cheese and sausage) binging moments.
What are your food memories and what do they remind you of? Do you cook with your children?
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE