Food Memories: The Proust Phenomenon

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Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

“I once had this tomato and onion sandwich in college. I did not remember coming across it ever before, but for some reason, when I saw it on the menu that day, I had to try it. When I took my first bite, a rush of memories came back to me. The flavour was so familiar. It was the sandwich my mother used to make for me when I was younger. It was a regular favourite as a child. The taste just took me back home. It was so simple, barely a meal and probably nutritiously terrible, but it became my go-to meal every time I missed home.”

We’ve all had that moment when you take a bite of something and it takes you back in time to a memory you didn’t know you had. For me, it’s these tiny sweet biscuits that just a few local grocers still sell in steel-capped jars. Every time I spot one, I think of my sister and I- little primary school kids- playing at my neighbour’s house. That is the only house I’ve ever had those treats. But the taste and that memory are crystal clear to me.

Food and nostalgia go way back. The word “nostalgia” finds its origins in the Greek words nostos, meaning “homecoming” and algos- “ache”. And the specific food nostalgia we’re talking about here even has a name- the Proust Phenomenon. The term comes from the first section of Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time”, where he describes how the experience of eating a madeleine cookie with lemon tea transported him back to his childhood-

“I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. . . . I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.” (p. 58)

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Taste and memory tend to have a strong connection largely because of their middle man- scent. The olfactory bulb is closely linked to two important brain areas- the amygdala and the hippocampus, responsible for emotion and memory respectively. An interplay of these senses and brain areas leads to the creation of distinct food memories.

The experience of food, thus, evokes memories that are not just cognitive, but often emotional too. When you think of food, you also think of the people and events surrounding that food experience. Which is why, if you’re asked to think of a significant food memory, you will probably think of the biryani your grandmother made on Eid, the sandwiches your mother made for you growing up, Christmas dinners with family, or the meals you shared with close friends in college.

Food practises tend to increase a sense of belongingness- to a culture, a family, a friend group. Research shows that people tend to associate recipes with specific rituals performed on festivals, significant events or birthdays because these symbolic rituals strengthen and shape close relationships. When we think of food, we also think of the commensality it involves. A beautiful Spanish phrase sobremesa somehow captures this vague sense of wholeness that eating together brings. Originating from the Spanish tradition of relaxing at the table after a heavy meal, it encapsulates the flow of conversation, memories and laughter as you share a meal with loved ones.

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Sobremesa- “the lingering discourse around the table when our bellies and hearts are full” |

Even the idea of “comfort food” is closely associated with a similar sense of nostalgia. Often, the foods we find comfort in tend to be the food that our parents or grandparents would give us when we were ill as children (think chicken soup or dal-chawal). These are foods that offer us some kind of emotional security, reminding us of times when we felt safe, loved and at home. For people who live away from home, like immigrants, comfort foods often taken on an even more important role. In an unfamiliar country, with the challenges of language and forming entirely new relationships, their comfort foods become a nostalgic marker of their identity. In these circumstances, food is often a means to maintain ethnic identity in the face of cultural change. This is also why immigrants gravitate towards ethnic markets and shops. For them, these aren’t just a means to cook food they are familiar with. Instead, these markets come to represent the places and people they come from. The sights, sounds and smells help them remember home and find solace in nostalgia.

The strong food memories we create and the nostalgia we associate with them, is often a bittersweet experience- evoking a sense of love and belongingness as well as a deep sense of longing for what once was. For a student in college, living away from home, an otherwise simple sandwich becomes a food she’s constantly drawn to. For an immigrant, probably thousands of miles away from a life previously known, even just the aroma of familiar food brings a sense of belonging.

In many ways then, food gives us something concrete to hold on to- an object and a flavour that represent fleeting experiences; and allow us a homecoming when we most need it and least expect it.

By -  
Arundhati Ail

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