Best Meal Ever Week: Indulging in Food Memories
My husband and I have a distinct division of labor when it comes to vacation memories. He remembers the details—the names of the museums we visited, the landmarks we saw, the trails we hiked. My job is to remember the food we ate. That’s how we talk about vacation too. I’ll mention a memorable meal, and he’ll fill in the details of everything else we did that day. He’ll mention something we did or saw, and I’ll ask if that was the place with the outstanding paninis or the pecan pralines.
We know the sense of smell is the one most closely tied to memory, so it makes sense that taste would be a close second since they are related. Because food is important to survival and we are not as far from our caveman ancestors as we like to think, our brains are wired, particularly in the hippocampus, to remember certain foods and where we found them. Food memories also involve all five senses—the sweet taste of apple pie, the smell of cinnamon and allspice, the attractive lattice pastry, the heat of the filling, the crunch of the crust—which makes these memories so vivid. Add in the novelty of a celebration or vacation and a dose of feeling happy to be at Grandma’s house, and those memories take on an emotional layer too.
A memorable night in Florence started with dinner at a tiny bistro a short walk from the Florence Cathedral. I still remember what I ate—a steak drenched in a balsamic vinegar reduction, fried potatoes, and the house red wine. This was the night we learned two things: us lightweights need to order the half carafe of wine instead of the full one, and the house vino rosso is always delizioso. On our wobbly walk back along the cobblestones toward our hotel, we followed the sounds of a violin to the courtyard of the Uffizi Palace. A small crowd had gathered, and we joined them on the steps mesmerized by the street musician playing on the other side. It was one of those moments where musician and music, setting and atmosphere collide and time stands still. The crowd was hushed, hanging on the notes wafting across the courtyard. After a while, a street musician a block away turned his electric guitar to eleven, broke the spell, and the crowd dispersed, but for that half hour or so, we were part of something special, happy and content with our buzzy heads and full bellies.
The chef at The Oasis in Lexington, Kentucky got such a kick out of our kids enthusiastically digging in to his Middle Eastern fare he sent a steady stream of amuse-bouches to our table for us all to try. We ate chicken shawarma, falafel, humus, salads in a sumac vinaigrette, and two different versions of baklava. The pecan baklava was outstanding. It’s a memory of my kids learning to be brave and trying new things and leaning in to the adventure of it all.
A block off the Grand-Place in Brussels, my home base for a week on a business trip years ago, I had the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. It was an authentic Belgian waffle—crunchy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside—with two scoops of chocolate ice cream with tiny flecks of Belgian chocolate, a drizzle of chocolate syrup, and powdered sugar sprinkled over the whole thing. When I think of my afternoon in the Godiva shop eating this glorious concoction, I remember the friendly shopkeepers I got to know on my rambles after work each day through the lovely old part of the city.
Inevitably, most memories fade a bit, but our memories of food remain vivid for a lifetime. One bite of a homemade biscuit, and I’m sitting around the big farmhouse table at my Granny Cantrell’s house pulling a hot pillowy biscuit onto my plate and slathering it with butter and honey. Coconut cake is love and celebration on a plate. My Granny Brown made me one for my birthday every year. There are few things prettier than a coconut cake—the golden layers, the bright white frosting, the coconut sprinkled across the top and down the sides like snow. Just thinking about it, I can smell the sweet coconut and taste the creamy frosting. She stored it in the refrigerator, so the perfect coconut cake is always served cold.
It’s one of the reasons I love to write about food. I recently launched a newsletter about Southern culture called Sweet Tea as an outlet to talk about my favorite people, places, and things. I can indulge in my favorite nerdery, like independent bookstores and obscure Southern poets, but the editions of the newsletter that connect most strongly with my readers have been the ones about food. I’m not surprised.
The upcoming holidays will be different this year as the coronavirus pandemic makes travel and large gatherings a run through the gauntlet. While we may not have all our loved ones around the table with us this year, we can cherish our memories of celebrations past with a table full of our favorite foods and look forward to the time we can gather again and create new food memories with those we love.