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On food and memory

(post, Laura Parisi)

"Everyone seems to have such strong memories associated with food." A coworker of mine observed this recently after a writer's workshop. Our task had been to write a series of six-word stories about family—most of which ended up being related to food. "I wonder why that is," she said. 

I'm sure an academic has studied this phenomenon at great length, but here are my amateur guesses at why this seems to be universally true:

1. Everyone eats. Not everyone has a mother, or a brother, or a dog. Not everyone has a good time at prom. Not everyone goes on big family hikes or gets married or learns to surf. But, to varying degrees of enjoyment and plenitude, everyone eats food.

2. Food is sensory. They say that smell is the strongest tie to memory, and if you've ever caught a whiff of something familiar but distant, you know why. My childhood smells like the blossoms of an Ailanthus tree—pungent and overwhelming. If I pass by one of those trees in the spring, I can instantly the sun flickering through tree branches along the New York City street I grew up on.

Taste, I think, is equally strong; the only reason we don't see it as such is because our ability to categorize taste is more limited. Things are either sweet, salty, bitter or sour, and very few tastes are unique to a specific memory. But still, taste does have that same transporting property: one bite of a good Italian gravy (AKA "tomato sauce") and I'm suddenly 7 years old and about to dive into a bowl full of fusilli and meatballs in my grandma's kitchen.

3. Food is central. Food and drink is at the core of everything—a culture, a family, an event. I was 5 years old at my grandparent's 50th anniversary, and these are the only things I remember: There were lots of people I didn't know. The event was held in a restaurant next to a body of water. I was allowed to drink as many Shirley temples as I wanted. To this day, I can still taste the grenadine.

My family (and most people's families) gather for food. Big events in our lives are underscored by the central common activity: eating in celebration. No matter what the occasion, happy or sad, we eat communally. It is, in many ways, the whole point of coming together. And those are the moments we remember.

4. Food happens a lot. In life, we remember the activities that are incredibly unique (your cousin's wedding, your college graduation) or mundane and repetitive—you may not be able to place when it happened, but I bet you can picture a time when you sharpened a pencil or picked a dandelion. The things in between (at least for me) get lost in the filing cabinet. Food happens all the time, usually thrice daily. It would be hard not to have an entire drawer of hanging folders in your brain dedicated to the topic.

So, there you have it: complete speculation on why food is central to so many people's memories. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

Oh, and, in case you were wondering: my mother's biography in exactly six words:

"It needs salt," she always says.