Sweet memories

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Eva Coutts investigates the nostalgic powers of good food. Illustration by Peony Gent and Bethany Thompson.

You know that way when you smell something, and all of a sudden find yourself unwittingly transported back to a random place in time? Does food have the ability to do that for you, too?

The mere sniff of gooseberries drags you back to standing in the garden as a child; grappling with brambles to snatch the berries with great expectation, only for the mouth-puckering fruit to sting you with guilt for stealing from the bush. With a sip of tepid, milky tea, I can hear the uncomfortable ticking clock in the sick room at high school. Now, I’d rather scald myself on boiling tea than be transported back there. 

Food is intrinsically woven within our life-story. A fond memory can invoke a lifelong love-affair with the simplest of foods, and likewise when associated with sorrow, encountering it can be like swallowing a stomach-punch, long after the sadness has subsided.  When I hear a mention of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, what comes with it is the marvellous crunch of Tunnock’s chocolate wafers. Even now, 10 years later, I am catapulted back to being squashed with my school pals in a tiny room, onboard a ferry on a school trip to Belgium, when the radio suddenly began blaring ‘Billie Jean’.

So here’s the question: does the food provoke the memory or does the memory provoke the food? Our unique and intimate associations are so bound up that untangling them is complex, often the memory so deep-rooted that we can’t actually separate the two. 

The use of food within literature and folklore is so often played upon to create an illusion of reality for the reader, the author plays on our senses and holds us there long after we finish the chapter. From our earliest days we have learned about characters through their diets – think Paddington Bear and his iconic marmalade sandwiches. As we grow our relationship with food becomes more complicated than simply our sustenance and this is mirrored in the culture around us. Sylvia Plath’s use of food in The Bell Jar so cleverly depicts the unravelling of her narrator’s deteriorating state. Esther says of her once-beloved avocados: “The bland yellow pear cup with its rim of alligator-green cradling the whole mess. Poison.” 

As a crucial part of childhood and the mornings of our lives, the connection between our memories and food can be a tangible thing to hold onto when our minds begin to fail us. Sensory Stimulation Therapy, for instance, is now globally recognised as a way to promote positive feeling in those with learning disabilities, memory loss, and brain trauma.

Discussing memories of food reveals a larder of responses. Some tearful, some reticent, some joyous. I talked to people from all walks of life about their early memories of food, including one lady of leisure whose memory is being robbed by the passing of life, who recounted with such clarity:

“There was a shop called the Maypole, they used to sell butter and eggs and milk and dairy produce - but they also had the Madeira cake. I used to look it and think when I grew up I would just retire somewhere and eat madeira cake. I liked the ends best. And the top was nice too, you could slice the top off and leave the rest for making puddings with. Naughty! That was in Ayr. I suppose it was about 1935.”

The hope and expectation of a ten year old was no less palpable eighty three years on. Memories of food tumble out of people, they open up slowly, shyly, and as the memory floods and their taste buds flare they become suddenly animated.

“I remember the noodles for lunch with all the child-minding children; they were the best.”

The statement was enough in itself, but with a little prompt from me, she elucidated on the memory of supping the salty slivers of goodness:

“Mum used to make them with vegetable stock and Soy Sauce. We were pretty poor so we couldn’t afford the proper stuff, but we’d get those cylindrical pots of Parmesan. It sounds gross but it was so delicious, we’d coat it in that powder stuff.”

“A tangy, lip-staining slurp of Heinz tomato soup, with its creamy aftertaste, envelops you in a hug from mum”

Food can be the pull-back to a time of life that was different, routine defined by a meal. A childhood written through a list of ingredients. 

“My Gran’s cooking – she always made things. Probably I was not useful to her, just chopping, but I was there. I remember doing home-made raviolis, folding pasta, and then eating them in front of the TV because I was sick so I was allowed a treat.”

Though the food itself has become obsolete, the memory remains pungently strong, which suggests that the memory is not really about the food at all, but the feeling we associate with it. A tangy, lip-staining slurp of Heinz tomato soup, with its creamy aftertaste, envelops you in a hug from mum, while diced carrots catch on your throat in an uncomfortable, lumpy manner, as you once, uncomfortably, lumpily chomped through them in the school canteen. 

So what about the often-harked ‘it doesn’t taste as it used to’? Certainly true in some respects, Mars Bars are barely recognisable anymore, and what used to be a thick and lustrous layer of milky, smooth goodness is now barely a sheer whiff of paltry cocoa. But does it also come down to our taste buds’ inability to experience a flavour the way we used to, feel the emotion once associated? Perhaps we’re just incapable of feeling quite so comforted by a chocolate bar as we once were.

Opening the lid on stored up memories provoked some of those I asked to narrate - with misty-eyed nostalgia - the way that food marked their childhood, different stages of life peppered by dishes:

“I loved food. My mum was a good cook and we lived on a farm so food was always happening in the house. Saturday was my favourite because we had mince and tatties. Even now whenever I’m emotionally slightly unstable I’ll make mince and tatties. My mother had a huge saucepan and it was always on the Aga; I remember mostly the green peas which sat in it.

“We had a backdoor with a Belfast sink and when we had custard my mum used to put the bowl of custard in the cold water in the sink so it would get colder. One day the cat, Benshee, the most beautiful blue Russian cat, was walking across the sink and fell into the custard. Mum took the cat out, washed him and served us the custard. She didn’t tell us till afterwards.”

It’s often suggested that most of the flavour experience actually comes from the smell rather than the taste, and of course, it’s always been the nose we trust to lead a hungry stomach to dinner. The smell of strawberries boiling in a jeely pan - a sticky, sugary mess - lulls us back to a sense of security. Science would suggest that when we associate food with a fond memory the effects are lasting, prompting us to think the food tastes differently, or better, than it does. But when you listen to the joyous recollections, you can’t help but agree that a lukewarm, lumpy bowl of Bird’s custard with tinned tangerines was the most marvellous pudding ever created. 

Perhaps it’s not the food we want, or even the taste, but that we want to feel as we did when we sat on too-tall stools, eating cheddar and salad cream sandwiches, our legs dangling beneath us and our worlds dangling in front.

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