Food and Time-travelling
‘No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.’ In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the narrator eats a madeleine and immediately his present dissolves into a memory of his childhood. The whole scene unravels: a feeling, an aunt, a house, a street, an entire village. At its center, the madeleine; a little heart spilling life into the memory.
This scene could have been taken out of a book about science fiction, but, who has not experienced a moment like this before? When a certain taste instantly transports you to a past time? In truth, food creates what we call an emotional memory. One in which all our senses are involved. We do not just remember its taste, it can also awaken a smell, a sound, an image or a feeling, all contained within a single bite. It is this combination of stimuli what explains why no cake will ever taste like your grandma’s.
An explanation as to why food triggers such vivid memories, has got to do with our ancient ancestors. For them, food was a matter of survival and eating always carried a risk. Plants could be poisonous, meat contaminated, or food could have gone rancid. To prevent contracting continuous sicknesses from food, the brain would generate long-lasting memories of those which had previously made them ill. This still happens today, where we might feel nauseous or aversion toward certain foods which made us sick before.
Since then, our relationship with food has evolved beyond its vital function. It can be a source of pleasure, something intimate, as well as a social, political or even spiritual act. This way, what we eat has acquired a central role in the construction of our identities.
Take comfort foods, they are different for each of us because we attach our own memories to them. By comfort eating we are actively seeking to be transported to a different place and time where we felt a characteristic cozy warmth inside. On TV, comfort foods are often depicted as something sweet, the kind of treats we only have on special occasions. They are often used as pointers for characters’ emotional states. When we see someone on the screen going through an enormous pot of ice-cream or surrounded by chocolate wrappers we immediately gather that the person is dealing with heartbreak. However, comfort foods could be anything: a fruit, a vegetable, a type of fish. One might even find that the warm dishes like bean soups or stews which once filled our homes’ dinner tables and starred in our childhood nightmares, are now a source of pleasure and the best remedy for the blues.
These food choices mostly come unconsciously, sometimes in the form of a sudden craving. Unless we question it, we might not realize why we are picking certain foods, or relate the feelings that at the time with what we eat. Perhaps then, paying attention to what we eat and how different foods make us feel, could help us understand ourselves a little better.