Food and memory

The human senses of taste and smell can transport us back in time. Through food, you can hear the laughter and squabbling as a child. You can see places in your mind that you have not been to for some time.

By Jeremy Ryland


This coming Sunday, 11 November, is Remembrance Day. Originally called Armistice Day, November 11 is the anniversary of the ending of World War I in 1918 – 100 years ago. This is a day to pause to remember the sacrifice of those men and women who have died or suffered in wars and conflicts and all those who have served in the past 100 years. The symbol of Remembrance Day is the poppy, a small red flower that grew in the battlefields of Flanders in World War I.


Rosemary is also a symbol of peace. The ancient Greeks believed that rosemary made their memories stronger. There is no mistaking the strong woody flavour and aroma of this Mediterranean herb, popular with Australian lamb, herb breads, mashed potato and casseroles. People also wear springs of rosemary and decorate shrines with rosemary as a symbol of remembrance of those who have died.


Rosemary twigs used to be burnt as incense to prevent the spread of disease and its aroma is thought to stimulate the brain and provide clarity of mind. Many cultures believed that rosemary made their memories stronger. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray love, remember”. A sentiment that prevails today, when people wear springs of rosemary and decorate shrines with rosemary as a symbol of remembrance of those who have died.


Food plays a powerful role in our memories. Many foods are important to our memories. We all have our food memories, some good and some bad. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Your eating decisions are based on memories more often than you realise. We eat the foods we like. The foods we were brought up on. Many foods we eat have nostalgic importance.


Eating a food you have not had for some time such as a childhood candy bar, mum’s comfort food or a food you were eating when something important happened – can bring back clarity, emotions and mindfulness. Many meals bring back memories – smells can heighten the senses and remind you of people and places. Nostalgic smells, especially those associated with childhood can take us back as smell and emotion are linked. Your mother’s perfume, grandma’s apple pie, dad’s whisky, even the cat’s fish can trigger feelings. Smell can recall emotions and memories, and often the recall of a smell is stronger than the visual memory – we “smell the memory first”!


The hippocampus is part of the brain that is critical for memory and is particularly important for forming long-term, autobiographic memories, those that can be consciously recalled. The hippocampus also has strong connections with parts of the brain that are important for emotion and is linked to the olfactory bulb which is involved in the sense of smell. Emotion and smell no doubt contribute to the power of some food memories; however, the hippocampus also has direct links to the digestive system, which regulates appetite, digestion and eating behaviour. Since searching for food, is so important to our early survival that it is clear that the hippocampus is primed to form memories about foods we like and where to find them.


And of course, we can have bad memories about food too. If you ate something as a child and didn't like it, chances are you don't eat it today. We avoid foods that tasted bad or made us sick, seafood for example. And events associated with food can also affect our likes and dislikes. I have a friend who was having a coffee when a car crashed into the coffee shop – she cannot drink coffee now without having vivid memories of that day.


What smells bring back memories for you?


Baked foods are very strong memory joggers; things like cakes, bread, bacon. And of course, comfort food. Comfort food trends have seen a real resurgence in recent years and our desire for comfort food seems to be holding strong. Comfort food is the food we have good memories about, the food we think of when we hear the word homemade, and that reminds us of simpler times.


“Comfort foods” are foods that make us feel safe, warm and protected. They are simple uncomplicated meals that relieve stress and remind us of our childhood or time spent with parents, grandparents and other special people. Their flavours bring back memories and emotions of good times past. In recent years, our palates have become more international and discerning, and our waistlines dictate that we eat a little less - some foods have been lost in time. But “memory” foods transcend time and deserve to be revisited.


The human senses of taste and smell can transport us back in time. Through food, you can hear the laughter and squabbling as a child. You can see places in your mind that you have not been to for some time.


Basic products such as lamb, slow-cooked until it falls off the bone - rich and full of flavour as it melts in the mouth. Sausages & mash: shepherd's pie: coq au vin: spaghetti bolognese: baked rice pudding.


What are your comfort foods???


Some foods can also help to improve your memory.


Fish such as sardines, mackerel, tuna, salmon, that are high in omega 3 fats assist with brain function. Vegetables & fruit; particularly those high in antioxidants like dark leafy vegetables, spinach, onions, rockmelon, sweet potato, asparagus, tomatoes, grapes; all help to feed our brains.


Berries, especially blueberries, are also high in antioxidants and improve memory. Even coffee is good for you! But only in moderation – coffee has been shown to aid memory as it helps focus and may aid in combating dementia – but too much can lead to lack of concentration


Don’t smoke. Smoking destroys memory cells. Drink a little red wine – in moderation, it has been thought to combat dementia. And of course exercise. Aerobic exercise helps blood circulation which helps memory whilst mental exercise (crossword puzzles, sudoku) helps keep the brain active.


So remember – this Remembrance Day, wear a sprig of rosemary, have a piece of rosemary cake and take a minute or two to remember past generations and think about how lucky we are in Australia to live in peace and relative security.