Sunday, January 27, 2008

Memories and Food

Do you remember the joy you felt when eating certain foods when you were a child? Maybe you remember your grandma baking apple pies in the kitchen whenever you visited her, and now the thought, scent, or sight of an apple pie takes you back to that very special time in your life. Or perhaps you got an occasional treat of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup when you were little, and even now, biting into one brings back all those old feelings. It's as if the food has the ability to transport us back in time to a happier place, a better time, or a time that we desperately want to re-live.

Science has proven that our memories are tied in to our senses, especially the sense of smell. And because smell and taste are intertwined, it is often the scent and taste of foods that unlock our cherished (or hated) memories. Often, people grow up and have a special fondness for foods their parents liked, even if we didn't like those foods as a child. I had read about this but never fully understood it until one day I was sitting in a restaurant, biting down on a thick, greasy Reuben sandwich. When I was a kid, I HATED rye bread. I HATED corned beef. I HATED Swiss cheese and I definitely HATED sauerkraut!! But suddenly, as an adult, I found myself drawn to Reuben sandwiches on the menus when I went out to eat. Several times I downed the grilled, melty, salty creations, wondering why I liked them so much. Then I remembered: they were my father's favorite sandwich. Ah yes, now I remember! He would order his Reuben when we went out to eat, and it smelled just awful to me, but he loved them so much. Funny how after he died, years later I was drawn to that very sandwich. I still have a fondness for them, not only because I like them, but because they remind me of my Dad. In some strange way, I feel closer to him when I am eating one.

There are other foods that trigger the same emotions, consciously or subconsciously. Whenever I had an orchestra concert in grade school, my parents would take me out for ice cream afterwards. I yearn for the feelings I had back then, sitting in an old-fashioned ice cream shoppe in a booth with my Mom and Dad. They were proud of me, and we were celebrating. The ice cream with hot fudge tasted sooo good. I think when I binge on ice cream, I am trying to bring my parents back from the grave. Not really, but you know what I mean.

The emotional charge associated with these types of foods makes it VERY hard to give them up. If you examine your eating, you may find similar links to your childhood or your past, and once you realize this you can change it. If what you really want is a hug from your Mom, but she is gone, then a dish of butter pecan ice cream is not going to give you what you need even though it was your Mom's favorite. If you are longing for the peaceful times you had with your Auntie, then eating an entire loaf of fresh baked bread with butter is not going to bring that back, even though you loved baking with her. And all the Tastycakes in the world did not bring my Mom back when she died, even though we used to eat them together when I was a child.

Those times are gone. People die. Things change. Relationships end. We have to learn to remember and re-live those meaningful moments WITHOUT the aid of an associated food. We can do this by practicing being mindful of what we REALLY want. It takes time and practice, but it can be done.

When I was a little girl, I often saw my Daddy sitting in his chair eating one of his favorite snacks: a bagel with Philly cream cheese and sliced green olives. Yuck! I tasted it, and it was just foul! I liked my bagels, don't get me wrong, but who puts olives on a bagel???

I will give you one guess who puts olives on a bagel now.

When I was a kid, I detested carrot cake. It seemed so sick and wrong to put a salad ingredient into a cake. But it was my Dad's favorite: carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Can you guess what my favorite cake is now?

I like remembering my Dad. I like feeling connected to him by eating the same things he ate. "I am like you, Dad," my soul cries out. "See? We are connected." But I can do that without eating Reubens and bagels with cream cheese and olives. I can do that in many other ways: looking at pictures of him, listening to albums he enjoyed, reading books he read. I can find other things I have in common with my Dad. I never had a chance to share those things with him... at least not for very long, because he died when I was 20. I miss him terribly. But eating a plate of tempura is not going to bring him back.

I am trying to keep my parents' memories alive in me in other ways now. I write about them. Recording what I remember about them and the experiences we shared is very therapeutic, and also assures me that my own children will understand who their grandparents were. I can think about my grandpa playing his banjo and making wood carvings on the porch, but I don't have to smoke cigarettes and eat eggs fried in bacon grease to remember him.

Let's each make an effort to dissociate EATING from our longings for the past. It is healthy to remember. Close your eyes, and sit in silence, and really REMEMBER what your loved ones were about. They would want you to remember THEM, and not just the cookies they used to bake. They would want you to be healthy.


Hanlie said...

This is so true... Even though my own parents are still alive, I can transport myself back to a time when life was far less complicated by having pancakes with cinnamon and sugar on a rainy day. I have memories involving lasagne, macaroni and cheese, doughnuts, KFC, spare ribs, etc. Time to dissociate the food from the memories...

Another excellent post, Lyn. I dreamed last night that I was phoning you!

arquie said...

This post really touched me. In hindsight I can see that when I moved away to college I started using food to relive fond memories and to feel close to my family. Now I live on a different continent than my family and I've reached my highest weight ever. Why? Because I've been fighting homesickness with food from back home. Just like you described, some of the things I don't like, I just like the feeling of being a part of what I left behind.

So now that I'm aware of that I do it less, but I've planned a trip to visit my family in spring and what I'm looking forward to most is the food-- especially the junk food that I can't get where I live!! I've clearly still got some room for improvement in my relationship with food.

Lidian said...

Oh Lyn, that is just why I like certain kinds of candy so much, because of my mom. That was her weakness too...and is mine. Thank you for another beautiful post.

Heather said...

Im glad you wrote abou this because that is one of the hardest things for me to work through. I associate so mcuh food with different memories or experiences I have had and its hard to not view food like that.

Anonymous said...

Great point! I don't think I've made the connection in that way, but it makes sense. I do like certain foods that my wife and her family think are weird simply because my parents or grandparent's liked or cooked them.

The interesting thing for me is that when my wife and I go to my parents' for a meal (they live fairly close by) I always pig out. I think part of it is because I love my mom's cooking (even though we don't cook like that in our home) and I think part of it is the comfort of eating, especially when family dynamics are in play. Being in the home in which I grew up doesn't help things either. I'm just amazed at how hard portion control is in those situations.

Thanks for the dose of self-awareness.