Discover how memories from our past experiences connect to what we eat and how we eat.
For some time now I’ve wondered why food can have such a profound emotional effect on us. Whether we’re the type who can’t stop talking about it or if we’re ambivalent to it, or even more tragically, if we’re afraid of it.
When it comes to food, I’m certainly the former. I think about it, I search books for it, I get excited in speciality stores filled with it and life feels meaningless without it.
There have been times when I’ve abstained from it, in search for some holy grail of health. In the middle of a juice and water fast my husband ate dinner in front of me. I have never wanted a bowl of spaghetti more in my life. It’s okay, we’ve talked it through, I’ve forgiven him.
Fortunately, I’ve never been afraid of food. But I have spent too many hours in shame around consuming it. There were times when my ego took captive of my joy. But I’ve had a stern word with that inner critic and since then life’s been a whole lot better. My heart goes out to those in fear of it. The disease of the denial of eating.
In her enlightening article What Your Earliest Food Memories Say About You on Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne PH.D explains the link between your family's food experiences during your formative years and how you relate to your partner in the present. It links positive food memories in childhood to positive food associations as an adult. Fascinating stuff.
Experience has shown me that having a healthy appetite is a sign of good health. When we’re sick, we often lose our desire to eat. To be able to enjoy what we eat is a privilege; we can be grateful for the pleasure of food. And please allow me to take the opportunity to share that when I am eating something that has no pain or slaughter involved in getting to my plate then the pleasure is even greater. The heart soars, the soul rejoices.
The joy of eating is linked to our five senses. It is a sensory experience, you are simultaneously touching, smelling, tasting, seeing and hearing your food. Imagine the crunch of battered chips, the salty taste and smell, golden colour and warmth against your fingers as you pick them up from their paper bag. And that’s just the food itself, we haven’t even started with where and who you’re eating it with. When we eat, all of our senses come to the party, unless you’ve got a cold and your nose is stuffy. Or if you’re blindfolded, and then that can be even more sensual!
If we are employing all of our senses in the food we enjoy, then this present-mindedness can help shift the guilt, the shame, the ambivalence. Mindful eating and soaking up the joy of the moment when your body tastes, smells, hears, sees and touches that bowl of oily garlicky spaghetti should be moving us into gratitude, presence, aliveness, the body working as it should, in an elegant dance shifting all over our lips, tongue, taste buds, teeth, throat, nostrils, ears. And always our brain, picking up signals from our taste receptors.
Our body is working harmoniously. Go on and thank your beautiful body.
And not only are our senses at play, our brain has thoughtfully stored all our memories for us, with some help from our olfactory system. Our sense of smell is linked to our memory. That’s why a whiff of something can take us back to childhood, to a long-forgotten lover, a summer spent by the beach. And since our sense of taste and smell are so intrinsically linked, the experience of food can be a link to our past.
Memories of the special places I have eaten inform how and where I love to enjoy food. Growing up I had picnics in springtime surrounded by dandelion flowers; tea parties with fairy bread and sweet tea; piping hot coffee in large thermoses watching my brothers' soccer games and dinner in the backyard on summer evenings for a special treat.
I want you to imagine for a moment a positive food memory. What is one of your favourite foods or food experiences? What is your earliest memory of it? Where were you, who were you with, can you visualise the atmosphere? What was the time of year? What was your mood? I bet you can follow that aroma through the twisting tunnels of your memory to a special moment in your past. An insight into why you love particular foods or food experiences.
Perhaps that is why I am constantly trying to recreate the food of my childhood before I became vegan. It is more than the flavour I crave, it is a feeling that I want to re-experience. The Italian sweet ricotta pie made every Easter. The fish and chips we’d eat on a Friday night. The cream-filled pink butterfly cakes Mum created on special birthday occasions. The packet of chocolate-coated apricot balls that I demolished while watching Chocolat in the cinema. The comforting bowl of macaroni soup Nonna would bring me as I sat watching Strawberry Shortcake videos in her lounge room.
It isn’t the exact ingredients we crave, it is the association, the sensory memory, the feeling of connection and how it has made us who we are. A life. A history. A culture. And knowing that we can experience these memories again and again, through the journey of food.
Welcome in those evocative food memories. Honour them. And if you can’t recall anything positive, then it’s never too late. Experience this life, travel and create new experiences. Gobble it all up.