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First personFood

We are what we remember we eat



Food writer Jocelyn Doyle explores the role our food memories play in shaping us


When I was five, my mother decided we would have a picnic.

On the surface of things, it was not the most impressive event. The guest list was very exclusive, limited to Mum, myself, my little sister and our golden retriever, Rudy; the venue, our back garden. The menu consisted solely of sausages cooked on a tiny, rickety gas stove, then pushed into soft baps spread thickly with good Irish butter. If you hadn’t been there, you might write this off as a non-event, something not even worth mentioning in the story of my life. And yet, 30 years later, catching a whiff of sausages cooking in the open air never fails to bring me back, immediately, to that sunny afternoon. I can still feel the rumbling of my eager stomach and see the daisies nodding gently in the grass around us. I can hear the sausages sizzle slowly — achingly, devastatingly slowly — on the little pan.

Because food engages all five of our senses, it is very good at evoking memories of meals and moments past. Smell and taste, in particular, are powerful triggers for emotion and memory; your olfactory bulb, where you experience smell, runs from your nose to the base of your brain and has direct connections to your amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for processing emotion) and to your hippocampus (linked with memory and cognition). This is why Proust waxed lyrical about what his madeleines meant to him, and it’s why so many of us are soothed by the aroma of a golden roast chicken or transported back to our childhoods by that first bite of a mince pie come December.

If the act of eating engages our minds as much as it does our digestive systems, then the adage ‘we are what we eat’ — usually meant in terms of nutrition — applies to our memories as much as our physical selves. Sure, the foods we grow up eating nourish our bodies, but they feed us on several other levels that are significantly more complex. For humans, food means far more than just fuel; eating is, fundamentally, a social act. It’s an intimacy we take for granted, but one that shapes who we are as people. Dishes and cuisines create in- and out-groups, shared rituals and a lexicon of implicit symbols.

Take a bowl of mashed potato — a classic comfort food for many, especially for those of us reared by Irish Mammies. On a physical level, my body is grateful for the minerals and vitamins, the calories provided by starchy carbohydrates and butter fats. My hungry cells absorb these nutrients and, for a short while, my movements, bodily functions and even thoughts are directly fueled by that bowl of mash. I am what I eat.

At the same time, my emotional self is being tugged back to my childhood, when a bowl of mash always meant comfort. I realise not everyone is this lucky or this well-fed, but my mother offers her love in the form of meals made from scratch, and in my early days our kitchen was as warm and intimate as her womb. I was raised by cool, pastry-making hands, swaddled in hearty soups and doted on with the sticky licks of a spoon, and many of my most evocative food memories are rooted in my formative years. For most of my life, whether it’s gently fluffed over the top of a cottage pie or swimming in a rich, silky onion gravy, digging into a heap of mashed potato has been synonymous with feeling safe, snug and minded.

Now that I’m a grown-ass adult who can make her own mash, I also feel the weight of memory when it comes to cooking. I can never peel a spud without hearing my mother’s voice in my ear: Jaysus, not so thick, you’re taking half the potato with it. (I’d like to clarify that this is no other-worldly or particularly reverent experience; my mother is still very much alive and well, and lives to frown at my peeling another day.) The simple act of the knife blade pulling inexorably back to my thumb is echoed through generations: I peel a potato using the same hand gestures Mum does, just as my Nana did, each of us taught by our mother. I am what I eat; I am, too, what I cook, and I am those who went before me. For all I know, my movements around a kitchen belong to a woman long forgotten. It’s not just potatoes, either: I am never more my mother than when I find myself picking at a still-warm roast chicken carcass as though compelled, half-heartedly telling myself to stop and leave the leftovers for tomorrow.

My most tangible food memories are many and varied, but they do share one thing in common: the foods responsible for carrying me back into my past — back to myself — are always distinctly low-brow in nature. I’m far from alone in this; for most of us, however enjoyable they may be, swanky meals just don’t present the same rich tapestry of sensory memory. This is partly because it’s during our time as children that we lay down memories at the fastest rate and of the strongest potency, and partly because, at that time of our lives, those experiences are still acting as building blocks for who we’ll become as we grow.

For me, it’s the smell of a bag of chips by the sea: suddenly I’m 11 again, lazing on a jetty in unseasonably strong April sunshine, my best friend beside me, all awkward limbs and pre-train-track overbites, our childhoods beginning to teeter on the cusp of adolescence. It’s the turkey sambo on soft, doughy white sliced pan that my uncle makes for me while we play board games every Christmas night, and the sense that the festivities can’t end without it. It’s the crisp, buttery cheese toasties and cups of tea my boyfriend would make me when we came home from the pub late at night, a million years ago in love’s first flush. It’s my Mammy’s mashed potatoes when I’m sad. It’s sausages cooked in the back garden, for no good reason at all.