My partner Alyssa and I recently ate dinner at Bloomington, Indiana’s My Thai Café. We had moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Bloomington a few months earlier and still had not found a Thai restaurant that was good enough to replace our old favorite in Atlanta, so we stepped in hoping for a good meal and maybe a new regular Thai eatery. The restaurant itself was small and contained not more than ten tables, but the décor was crisp and nice and the staff pleasant and attentive. We sat down and scanned the menu, seeing many of the usual suspects commonly found on Thai restaurant menus – Pad Thai, Larb, a veritable rainbow of curries, and, of course, the grilled skewers of meat accompanied by spicy peanut sauce that is chicken satay. It being rather cold out, we each chose a soup and we decided on the satay as an appetizer. I could not remember the last time I had had chicken satay and it seemed like a good compromise for the both of us – I love the pork and seafood in many of the appetizers, Alyssa does not. With that we placed our orders, got drinks, and waited for the food to arrive.
As we sipped our drinks – beer for me and hot tea for Alyssa – the satay arrived. It consisted of several pieces of golden brown chicken cooked on skewers accompanied by two small bowls of sauce, one a thin, sweet, vinegary sauce and the other a more “traditional” spicy peanut sauce. There was nothing unusual in the preparation or presentation of the dish, but when I tasted it I was astounded. Not because of the flavor (though the satay as in fact good) but because eating it brought back a flood of memories I didn’t even know I had. I realized then and there that the first distinct food I could actually remember eating was of all things chicken satay. With each bite of the satay this conviction became ever stronger – I could remember with clarity the long table I sat at with my parents and the white, nondescript tablecloth that adorned it. I could remember the sense of mystery and my feelings of anticipation waiting for the food to arrive, and the way that the fairly dark atmosphere of the restaurant seemed to enhance these. I remembered the chicken satay being brought to the table looking anything but dangerous, probably appearing to the me of that time as nothing more than chicken tenders on skewers. The strongest part of the memory though was the shock, utter and full-blown, that I felt when I first tasted the satay’s peanut sauce. How was it possible, my young mind wondered, that peanuts could be in anything besides a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Moreover, how could they be served with chicken and how could they taste so familiar yet so strange? My encounter with satay was, it seemed, a powerful event in my early years – powerful enough to be easily recallable over twenty-five years later despite my not having given it a second thought in nearly that long.
Moving on to our soups, Alyssa and I digested and discussed my reaction to the satay. What else did I remember about the meal? What else about that time in my life in general? I knew I must have been around five or six years old and I was probably living in Atlanta at the time, though I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant or exactly where it was located. I also knew that the chicken satay experience had triggered a revelation in my dad as well – he became obsessed with peanut sauce, buying numerous peanut sauce mixes to try at home. I don’t think he ever tried making peanut sauce from scratch but that isn’t entirely important; a form of peanut sauce still made it into our family’s standard list of dinner foods. And in thinking about this single episode I also came to the realization that many of the memories swirling about in my head, especially those of my younger years, were in fact food-related.
I could recall drinking Turkish ayran in an Atlanta café while sitting in padded aluminum chairs at a cheap, acrylic-topped table, the décor consisting primarily of faded pictures of Turkish landscapes. I found the ayran, a yogurt-based drink, repulsive, incredibly bitter, and completely unappetizing, though I was still compelled to finish it – it had been a gift from the restaurant owner to my parents and me and I didn’t want to offend him. I also remember eating with my parents at a Moroccan restaurant called Imperial Fez, an establishment quite apart from the Turkish restaurant. Imperial Fez was adorned with lush carpets and wall-hangings and guests ate reclining while being surrounded by the sumptuous smells of Mediterranean spices and the exotic movement of scantily clad belly dancers. As with the satay, my meal at Imperial Fez stuck in my mind as a first of sorts as well: I had never before tasted the delicious brininess of a kalamata olive or the surprising freshness of Moroccan mint tea. These eating experiences were all revelations for me, the first times I had tasted these new and unusual flavors and they had remained, somehow, deeply ingrained in my memory. I could also remember cooking food at home with my parents, something that no doubt helped inspire the love for cooking I have today. One of my most potent cooking memories centers upon garlic, specifically when I was called upon as a child to run countless cloves through a garlic press for my mom. I haven’t used a garlic press in years, but I can still smell the sharpness of the fresh garlic and see the mashed flesh ooze from the holes as I provided pressure. Perhaps more than anything else I remember cleaning the press, the smell of the garlic lingering on my hands no matter how many times I washed them.
We talked some more about our food memories as we finished our meals. Despite being a lover of food, I realized I hadn’t really thought much about my deep “food past” – I had instead been living almost entirely in the present. I had been looking at my food experiences in the cosmopolitan locales of Washington D.C., Boston, and Atlanta where I had more recently been living as the sites of my palatal development. It is perhaps ironic that it took a bite of chicken satay in Bloomington, Indiana to make me remember that my “culinary education” didn’t begin when I moved out of my parents’ house and went off to college: it actually began when I was much, much younger. The more we talked the more fascinated I began to be with how much I could actually remember about food throughout my life. What I could not figure out, however, is HOW I could remember so much of what I did. I decided then to remedy my lack of understanding by delving into the study of food and memory.
Food in Memory
As it turns out, memory studies have begun to become more popular in recent years and there has in fact been a fairly sizeable amount of work devoted by food scholars to the intersection of food and memory. Jon Holtzman’s (2006) recent overview of the subject in Annual Review of Anthropology has shown that food memories can be implicated in a wide range of phenomena such as the remembrance of “sensuous” experiences, the creation of ethnic (and other) identities, nostalgic views of childhood or the “Other,” and even within the constructive (and destructive) processes of nation building and nationalism. Food memories clearly operate on many levels and they can be theorized in a wide variety of ways. Where then do my own memories fit into this grand arch of research? In the following sections I will explore what my own remembrances say about the sensuality and durability of food memories and the role that these memories play in structuring personal food preferences and identities.
The Science of Food Memories
Much of food’s ability to inspire vivid and enduring memories seems to come from its inherent sensual nature (Sutton 2001). Not only does food happen in time and space, we also experience it through a range of senses – taste obviously, but also through smell, sight, touch, and even at times sound. Despite the array of ways that we can experience food, my own memories and those of others seem to consistently revolve around taste and smell. It wasn’t until the distinct spicy peanut-flavored sauce hit my tongue that I was able to recall the whole suite of memories associated with my first encounter with satay. Likewise, it isn’t the sight or feel of garlic that resurrects my early cooking memories but instead its pungent raw smell. Why is this? There is speculation that the mechanism behind remembering smell and taste is inherently different and isolated from other forms of memory (Baddeley 2004:164). This fact is borne out through work by psychologists examining how smell is remembered. Being tasked to recall an odor (for instance of a rose or fresh baked bread) when it is not present will typically generate a visual image of the subject as opposed to the actual sensation of smelling the smell in question (Engen 1991; Baddeley 2004). It is not until we experience the smell again in person that we can fully remember it, and when we do we remember not solely the smell but more accurately the event and experience in which we encountered it (Engen 1991). Smells then become markers, signposts in our memory of past places, times, and emotions. These markers are produced quickly, often through the “first association” we make with a new odor, and they are not easily forgotten (Engen 1991): indeed, research has shown that humans can often recognize a specific, individual scent that we haven’t experienced in years.
The same psychological concepts utilized in the study of memories of smell can be productively applied to that of taste. As David Sutton suggests in Remembrance of Repasts, taste and smell are both similar in that they conjure episodic memories – in much the same way that smells serve as markers of past experience, tastes similarly evoke experience-based remembrances. My experiences with chicken satay and with the garlic press certainly bear this out – both are memories of a specific set of events and emotions only accessible through the re-experiencing of the original trigger, the taste of peanut sauce and the smell of raw garlic. As with smells, the idea of “first association” seems to hold true for tastes as well: no matter how many times I have chicken satay I will continue to think of that first, good experience with my parents, and the same applies to those delicious, briny kalamata olives and the Moroccan mint tea from Imperial Fez. And like smells, tastes seem to be hard to forget even across great lengths of time.
First associations of food and the memories that foods evoke do not, of course, have to be positive in nature. Whereas “good” food experiences such as mine involving satay, olives, and tea may make me more likely to eat these foods again in the future, a bad experience might have an equally opposite effect. For instance, after having contracted food poisoning from eating a pork chop a few years ago it took me quite some time to be able to think about eating that same cut of meat again; had this been my first experience with a pork chop I may have contemplated NEVER eating one again. The durability of food memories, particularly those of a negative nature, actually has incredibly important implications. As Rozin has argued, our dislike towards the smell and odor of foods that have made us physically sick in the past helps to define what foods we avoid eating in the present. By associating the smell and taste of rancid or poisonous foods with the displeasure of nausea and vomiting, durable and sensual food memories once again serve as signposts to provide people with a list of foods that could potentially have a detrimental effect on our survival (Baddeley 2004). It is not too much of a stretch to think that the opposite may be true from a biological sense – “good” food memories, whether emotional or situational, may remain vivid in our minds as reminders of foods that are acceptable or desirable to eat.
Memories and Food Preferences
So, how do we move from the psychology of odor and taste to the meaning and function of food memories in constructing our eating preferences and habits? We must reorient food and place it within a social context by understanding that “food is a many-splendored thing, central to biological and social life” (Counihan 1991:1). Food is not restricted solely to the biological, to survival through the intake of nutrients and the avoidance of potentially harmful ingredients. These are of course important aspects of food but we also have to acknowledge that “food – like the family, gender, or religion – must be understood as a cultural construct” (Holtzman 2006:364). Everything from the structure of a meal to the particular items and ingredients deemed edible are in play to be negotiated during this process (Douglas 1972). The choices we make in these regards provide us a platform through which to act out our identities; food beliefs and eating habits are culturally reproduced and distinguishable along lines such as social class, and our eating choices allow us to share a group identity with others (Lupton 25). While the cultural structuring of food can occur prominently during special meals and feasts such as an American Thanksgiving dinner consisting of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, its effects are just as important within the everyday and seemingly mundane quotidian meal. Indeed, it is our everyday and repeated meals that may in fact most effectively serve to reproduce the cultural meaning and symbolism of food (Counihan 19). Finally, we must understand that this process, this charging of food with social power, occurs on multiple levels from the individual or family up through community, ethnicity, gender, and even nationality.
Following this, our next step brings us back to the psychological view of smell and taste memories. If we combine food’s ability to frame vivid, intense episodic memories with the social nature of eating, we can understand how tasting and smelling food can conjure memories that can both further re-excite the palate as well as help “organize our relationship with the past in socially significant ways” (Lupton 1996:32). The tastes and smells we experience during socially- and emotionally-charged moments such as meals with family and friends become ingrained in our memories alongside our physical and biological reactions to particular foods. As with our evolutionary drive to avoid “dangerous” smells and tastes, we use our social and emotional food memories to guide us in our decisions of what is acceptable to eat. Food with negative connotations, whether from a physical reaction, bad emotional experience, or unfavorable social standing, will likely remain outside of the foods we readily consume, while foods that bring back memories with positive connotations, however, are much more likely to be incorporated and accepted. For me, the positive experiences I had as a child eating new ethnic foods has helped shaped my desire to incorporate other similar foods into my diet. This may seem like a commonsense idea, and in some ways it is, but it is also powerful one – our thoughts on food are shaped by our culinary past, not just on a physical/sensual level but on an emotional and social one as well. We don’t eat in a vacuum, per se, but in a world structured by both our memories and the present through the social ideals of food held by ourselves and those around us. “Food stirs the emotions,” forever entangling the social and sensual (Lupton 1996:31).
Food has always been important to me, especially over the last few years when I have made an active and conscious effort to educate and expand my palate. What I had never realized until recently, however, was that my culinary education had begun much earlier than I had ever imagined. It took an innocuous looking skewer of chicken and a dollop of peanut sauce to bring back of a flood of food-related memories. Those memories, my early formative encounters with ethnic foods such as satay, aryan, and Moroccan mint tea, provided my first lessons in eating and served as the signposts I would use in later years to shape my food preferences. The tastes of these foods bring back the feelings of excitement and exploration I felt when I first tried them, and my fond memories of the family outings the foods are associated with make trying new foods a very positive thing for me. These experiences helped form my vision of what a meal was constituted of, how it should be eaten, and most importantly how it should be tasted and enjoyed. That my memories lay dormant in my unconscious mind doesn’t change the fact that, on some level, they kept me on course eating and thinking about food in the same open way I did as a child. The only difference now is that, thanks to chicken satay, I know why.
Baddeley, Alan. Your Memory: A User’s Guide. New York: Firefly Books, 2004. Print.
Counihan, Carole. The Anthropology of Food and Body: Gender, Meaning, and Power. New York: Rutledge, 1999. Print.
Douglas, Mary. “Deciphering a Meal.” Daedalus 101.1 (1972): 61-81. Print.
Engen, Trygg. Odor Sensation and Memory. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991. Print.
Holtzman, Jon. “Food and Memory.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (2006): 361-78. Print.
Lupton, Deborah. Food, the Body and the Self. London: Sage Publications, 1996. Print.
Rozin, Paul. “Psychobiological Perspectives on Food Preferences and Avoidances.” Food and Evolution. Ed. Marvin Harris and Eric B. Ross. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. 181-205. Print
Sutton, David. Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. New York: Berg, 2001. Print.