This Christmas we did not, as usual, get together with the rest of the family. So, as I stood alone in the kitchen on Christmas morning, whilst everyone else still slept, I was surprised by how many memories I was having as I prepared the traditional Christmas feast for just four of us.
Making the stuffing reminded me of past Christmases when my mum and I would giggle in the early hours of Christmas mornings, shivering in our dressing gowns, as we stuffed the turkey which had to cook for six hours to be ready for lunch time!
As I peeled potatoes, I was reminded of my Portuguese Aunty Aida who lived with us when we were children and who did all the cooking for the family. She used to tell me off for cutting too much peel off the potatoes, which made me smile as I mentally apologised for the extremely thick peelings I was making.
This got me thinking about how food can trigger memories, which was further re-enforced when I opened a present, from a client, to find it was a box of Thornton’s chocolates. Not having seen a Thornton’s chocolate since 1989, when I used to work in the city of London near a Thornton’s shop, I fondly recollected those times.
Without my glasses on to read the descriptions, I randomly choose a chocolate. Coffee! Despite loving coffee, it is the one flavour I cannot eat. It brought back bad memories from when I suffered terrible deafness attacks which I found occurred when I drank coffee and which thankfully stopped when I stopped drinking it.
Not a good memory, so I quickly took another chocolate, and the rose flavour of Turkish delight invaded my taste buds. This chocolate transported me back to my childhood Christmases when I traditionally received a Cadbury’s chocolate selection stocking which contained a large pink Turkish delight bar that I did not like and always gave to my Nan. I enjoyed this memory although my Nan is regularly evoked by sponge cakes.
The nostalgia I feel, when faced with a particular food, such as for my Nan and sponge cakes, is not just nostalgia for eating the cake, but for the time I used to watch my Nan weigh the ingredients, mix them with a wooden spoon, of my being allowed to ‘lick the bowl’ afterwards and of eating the finished cake with a cup of tea in a proper bone china cup and saucer. The cake evokes and reinforces all the lovely feelings I had of being with my Nan.
Did you know that powerful associate memories are induced by food because food involves all five of our senses? We are taken back to a time, a place, an occasion and reminded of whom we were with and the emotions that we felt at the time.
The hippocampus is the part of our brain responsible for memory and it is crucially linked to survival, working closely with parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion and smell which could be why food memories are so evocative.
Research on the effects of food to trigger memories have led to specialised nursing homes, in the US, giving their Alzheimer’s and dementia patients meals that were important to them in the past, either traditional food from their hometown, or meals they used to cook and eat. This idea is similar to the successful use of music to trigger memories buried in the consciousness.
Food triggers are successful in treating memory loss because they utilise the strong sensory psychological and biological links between food and memory. Our dopamine system is closely linked to food memories as it controls the reward centres in the brain so that when we smell or eat something we like, the dopamine pathways interact with parts of the brain that are related to memory.
Have you ever had roast turkey in the summer and said that it reminds you of Christmas? Just the smell can bring back the lovely feelings of Christmas, of the fire crackling, the lazing around with the family watching a film with overfull stomachs yet still snacking on the usually forbidden treats. All our senses are triggered when we eat, and this sensory experience can bring forth a long forgotten vivid memory.
When this happens, it is called “involuntary memory”, which is also known as the Proustian effect, named after writer and philosopher Marcel Proust who wrote about his experience when eating a madeleine cake dipped in tea. The sight of the madeleine itself did not trigger any memories but when he dipped it in his tea and ate it, the flavour aroused happy forgotten memories of his childhood, reminding him of when his aunt Léonie used to give him a bite of her own tea-dipped madeleine. That one mouthful transported Proust back in time to Léonie’s house and he vividly recalled the town and playing in the square.
My grandfather arrives in my memory when I make scrambled eggs as he used to make them for my breakfast when I lived with my grandparents aged 13. My father who was rarely at home because he was always in the theatre or touring with his dance troop comes to mind when I make spaghetti because he once made it for us. It was overcooked and sticky and my dad was cross when my sisters and I complained. It is the only memory I have of him ever cooking!
However, not all food memories are good ones. My mother refuses to eat ‘Maria’ biscuits because they remind her of her struggles when she was a ‘poor’ dancer touring in Spain with my father and all they could afford to eat for three weeks was Maria biscuits! Equally, food that made us ill will be avoided in the future because of the reminder of how bad we felt.
Before moving back to Portugal in 1999, the thought of ‘chouriços’, ‘bifanas’ or grilled sardines conjured fond memories of my growing up here. However, no matter how hard I tried to recreate Portuguese recipes at home in the UK, they never tasted quite right.
I have not eaten out since March 2020 but hope that soon I will go out more, meet up with friends and make new memories .. and by the way, the rest of the Thornton’s chocolates were delicious and the only memory they brought was that I was going to get fat by eating them all.
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.