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Essays

The Intersection of Memory and Food

There is an ancient Celtic belief that the souls of things lost and forgotten are not bygones. Rather, they are among us, concealed and hiding within objects, animals, plants. Here, they wait, quiet and patient. They wait for recognition. Often this never happens at all, and we forget them as things past. Yet, sometimes, these souls come back to us from hidden places. 

It is thought each of the different senses are associated with various functions of time and memory. Hearing, for example, is associated with the passing of time. Hearing is a purely linear experience. Sound begins at one point and ends at another. Sight allows us perception of movement—color and image, spatial understanding. But the sense of smell? Memory. 

Food is a hidden place. According to French author, Marcel Proust, it has two identities. One physical and one spiritual. Food has a spirit that hides within food’s physical shape. 

My grandfather loves lamb. He cooks roasted rosemary lamb when we visit him. The subtle scent of smoky herbs fills the living room as he pulls the sizzling chops from the oven. He first encouraged me to try lamb. I remember the initial bite I took, the earthy taste that lingered after. Years later, I cannot help but think of him when out to dinner and lamb is on the menu; he is there on the shelf beside the rosemary in my spice cabinet. Traceries of him spread out from that first time, that first bite, out from the past and into the future.

When referring to taste, the majority of our sensory enjoyment is evoked through sense of smell. While taste is not smell, and while tastes can be agreeably good or bad, smells are more subjective. This is because scents are steeped in memory. A scent can be recognized as familiar only when it has previously been encountered, stored away until the subsequent rendezvous.

Proust wrote a now-famous scene about a time he took a bite of a madeline, a small shell-shaped cookie, and how, suddenly, something immense and profound stirred within his soul. The taste of the cookie, the tendrils of smell which encircled him as he sat in sensory contemplation, removed him from his actual reality and transported him into a memory. The soul of this memory, it turned out, lay buried within the madeline. 

Photo Courtesy of Joy of Baking

Does food, then, become a memory? A metaphor harkening back to a past, only accessed through the golden ticket of sense? 

Proust’s childhood memories are hidden inside madeleines. 

It goes beyond cookies, though. Food as it is presented within cultures is the incarnation of memory itself.  This plate of lamb and potatoes, this glass of nice red wine accompanying it, the chocolate ganache dessert to come followed by a decaffeinated cup of coffee, is memory. The paring of meat and starch is memory. The wine is memory. The chocolate and coffee are memories. I know this because we do not cook meals without deciding to, and we make what we like to eat, and we like to eat what we have eaten for years: we eat our memories.

Amy Hempel writes: No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. 

Lamb is a castle. 

I bite into lamb, and the spirit within is released. I am with my grandpa, no longer at dinner alone in my apartment but with him at his house. A sheen of sweat hovers over his eyebrows after standing and cooking all afternoon. The cutlets lie on a bed of rosemary.

Scents of foods have mastered the practice of embalming. I eat lamb at 21 and am suddenly seven; I am as I was the first time. The rosemary cutlet, the deep, smoky aroma as it is pulled from the licking flames of a deglazed pan, the golden brown center outlined by a thin yet dark char, the green sprigs falling off to the side like stones or breadcrumbs leading to the center of the plate where the lamb now rests. I eat lamb and my grandfather’s beard is no longer grey but brown. I eat lamb and the arthritic swell of my grandfather’s knuckles retracts. 

Memories are strange because they are not things of the past. How can they be when I feel them here and now? How can they be as I even now impose them on experiences I wish to have in the future? 

To some, Proust is actually revealing that food, rather than separating, transcends the difference between a thing and its essence. In this way, food serves as the treasure chest within which the past lies dormant until it becomes again unlocked through sensual experiences. 

When I tasted my first petit madeleine, I closed my eyes for the initial bite. I had imagined the taste would take me to Combray, Proust’s childhood village. This is, after all, where the taste took him. I had imagined that I would see the pavilion and garden, the parish church. When I took that first bite, I closed my eyes and I saw nothing. 

Lamb is my memory palace. 

Cover Photo Courtesy of Pinch and Swirl.

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