When from the distant past nothing remains, after the beings have died, after the things are destroyed and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, yet more vital, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense architecture of memory.
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Time Forgotten
A Google search of food and memory brings up an easy two dozen articles about foods that allegedly help prevent memory loss. Eat more walnuts! Eat more salmon! I’m more interested in the food that conjures up a world of memory on its own.
Bring your finger to the bridge of your nose. Right there on the other side of the nasal bone is your amygdala, the almond-shaped part of the brain conveniently close to your center of smell. This part of the brain houses memory. It also plays a role in the way we process emotion. That’s why food is such a trigger for powerful feelings and recollections from the past.
With his trusty amygdala, Proust spent the last three years of his life within the confines of his cork-lined bedroom evoking a world of sensory riches, an expansive past, all sparked, at least on the page, by a tea-soaked madeleine.
You, too, store a whole ocean of memory in that little nut-shaped part of your brain. It’s why a Colombian friend, inspecting my vegetable garden, stopped cold at the sight of my monster collard greens and started to tear. “My mami used to make these for breakfast, scrambled with eggs.” It’s peasant food, she shrugged, but. . . But it came with warm rush of memories — of the rural community where she grew up, of the sun-baked heat, the bright mineral smell of the soil, the clothes strung on the line. We’re talking more than breakfast. I clipped her two dozen leaves, each as big as an elephant ear, so she can make collards and eggs and give her children a taste of her own past.
I think Proust was lucky. Likewise my Colombian friend. The foods that so trigger memory or longing may not be as elegant as a teacake or as pure and earnest as greens and eggs. A Bavarian baker turns rhapsodic over the cheap mustard buns he’d get at festivals. Imagine a hot dog or sausage roll split, slathered with mustard and pickles — everything but the sausage, which he couldn’t afford. Mustard buns, he says, were crunchy and divine eaten at once, greasy and leaden if you waited too long. For his Alabama wife, a professional chef, home is her mother’s salmon croquettes, “canned salmon and bechamel, pretty nasty, actually.” An English friend who lives in Paris, the culinary mecca of the world, occasionally yearns for that Brit standard, beans on toast. Preferably not even heated (he has other issues). For another friend, home is the midwest and the taste of Sara Lee chocolate cake, that thick brown block which her family served — sometimes frozen — at every birthday when she was growing up. She knows more sophisticated chocolate desserts, she knows processed food isn’t good for you. It’s still her favorite for food for celebration, because it evokes a lifetime of happy memories.
We don’t get to choose the foods of home. I wish mine was a fiery Bengali curry, a healthful, soulful collard and egg scramble or a sweet, buttery teacake. It is, instead, egg salad. Specifically, egg salad with olives on challah, made by my maternal grandmother. It is something I haven’t eaten in years, and being vegan, could never eat again (and don’t tell me about tofu “egg” salad. I love tofu but do not eat “food” in quotation marks).
I still recall with a fullness at the back my throat and an immense sense of longing the creaminess of the eggs. My grandmother knew just how much to mash them, just how much mayonnaise to add. I remember their gentle pale yellow, the little sparks of salt from the sliced green olives, the tender bread cut into four neat triangles. She somehow intuited my passionate though unarticulated preference for sandwiches cut into triangles, rather than squares. In the same way, she always knew the right temperature to serve it — cool, not shockingly cold.
And remembering that, I remember everything — her smell, sweet and rosy from Jergen’s lotion, her bathing me with a hard bar of Ivory soap in her white enamel kitchen sink, the shag carpet in the living room, which seemed, at least to my little girl eyes, to spring up as tall and wild as kudzu.
I do not long to eat egg salad again. What I long for is that absolutely crystalline time and place and sense of being loved.
We are all looking for return, for that place we thought of as home. Sometimes we spend our lives searching for it. Sometimes, we can find it in the memory of a simple sandwich. Food is sustenance, but it is also what connects us to each other, to the planet and to what Proust called “the imminent joy of going home.”