When was the last time you ate out? Where was it and what did you eat?
If you don’t remember, you clearly do not have a foodographic™ memory.
The other evening I was out at a restaurant with some friends, stuffing some kick-ass fish tacos into my gaping maw, and the conversation turned to the concept of food and memory. My friend’s fifteen-year-old daughter apparently remembers the places where she’s travelled based on the food she’s eaten there.
And it occurred to me that my father had been the same way. From the veal Marsala he enjoyed at a Paris bistro in 1987, to the turkey sandwich he ordered at the golf club where he was a member in 2001. He had a foodographic memory.
Even my husband — who regularly purges his memory banks of non-essentials, like the name of the actor who played Jason in the Bourne Identity — has at least one strong food memory: he claims that the best clam chowder he ever ate was with his parents on the ferry to Prince Edward Island in 1984.
What is it about food that triggers such a strong association that we can carry this memory for a lifetime? I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger for recollection. For better or worse, a certain smell can instantly transport us to an earlier time and place. Memory is the yeasty scent of warm pizza dough rising in a ceramic bowl covered in a tea towel atop my mother’s harvest gold refrigerator. It’s also Christmases of baking chestnuts, cranberries bubbling in an open saucepan, the aroma of a roasting turkey.
Obviously the taste has something to do with it. The complexity of the flavours in a rich mole sauce, or the way a squirt of lemon juice cuts through the richness of the melted butter that coats a chunk of perfectly cooked fresh lobster.
Perhaps it’s also the atmosphere of a particular restaurant — the sound of clinking cutlery, the pop of a cork, how the smoky, gilt-edged mirror makes the dining room look larger than it really is.
When I was nine years old, my parents travelled from the suburbs of Peterborough to the big city of Toronto for at least one weekend every other month. Sometimes we’d stay for a day, sometimes overnight. We would shop at the Eaton’s Centre, gaze at the architectural marvel that is Nathan Phillips Square, and have lunch in a wondrous restaurant. The dining room had high ceilings and enormous, pendulous chandeliers that had hundreds of light bulbs that formed warm, glowing orbs miles above our heads. I was a picky eater and the glorious children’s menu served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with fresh white bread. For dessert I was served a single scoop of vanilla ice cream with a face made of candy and an edible cone for a hat. Basically, it was kid heaven. I can still feel the soft bread and peanut butter coating the roof of my mouth.
Several years ago, my husband and I took the children on a trip to Italy. We drank cappuccinos in Rome, ate pizza in Sorrento and, in a small hole-in-the-wall we found on a Venice side street, I had the best ravioli I’ve ever eaten. I recall that at the time I dubbed these ravioli: Golden Pillows of Joy.
In my time here on earth, I’ve travelled a modest amount. The memories of meals I’ve enjoyed at both restaurants and the houses of friends and relations are firm reminders of the comfort and power of both food and memory. As my children move onward and my nest begins to empty, I look forward to having more time, and I hope enough money, to take my foodographic memory on a tour of places I haven’t yet explored, both mundane and exotic.
Bon appétit, my friends, and bon voyage!