#Foodporn: Why Food Is So Closely Tied To Our Memories
The tune of a song, a bite or even the mere mention of a particular food, can take you right back to a certain time in your life.
For a while, I couldn’t even look at Herbs de Provence without reminiscing about an ex-boyfriend. When we traveled through France and then came back to New York, we were practically obsessed with the seasoning.
When we broke up, I had to temporarily stop using the spice, and my eggs tasted pretty bland for a couple of months.
Somewhere around the age of 23, I spent many nights sitting cross-legged on a Murray Hill living room floor drinking bottles of Vinho Verde with a man I dated.
Recently, at a Park Slope wine bar, my spectacled Hinge date suggested that we have some of that same wine. I was immediately transported seven years back.
When a memory is evoked, it can feel just like yesterday. I once had a boyfriend who ate the Meatball Shop, no joke, five nights a week. Though I hardly ever think of him, if I see a Meatball Shop, I’m back in 2012, thinking of how we used to argue about what to watch on Netflix.
The process of eating ignites all of our senses. Other than sex, I can’t seem to think of a similar action that uses smell, sight, touch, taste and sound.
I believe that is why food and memories of love or lust are so intertwined. Even in popular culture, we see “food porn” is often hashtagged on cooking and nutrition blogs, and this isn’t just a coincidence.
All foods, especially sugar and high-fat options, activate the limbic system of our brains, which happens to be the same section activated during sex.
Our limbic system creates the “want” feeling, as in, sitting outside at a Yankee game thinking, “I want an ice cold beer,” or sitting wide-eyed across from someone on the fifth date and thinking, “I really want to sleep with her.”
It’s not just memories with past lovers. Food and memories are intertwined with all of our interactions. The other day at work, my coworker was heating up lunch and I said, “It smells like camp!”
She thought I was insulting her, since she associated camp with a dingy, dirty smell; but for me, the smell welcomed a feeling of comfort and a reminder of a time when everything was simple.
When I think of a chicken sandwich from Wendy’s, I think of being 9 years old and sitting next to my dad in the car, hoping he'd order me a frosty, too.
In college, my roommate Jen, would periodically leave a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies on my computer desk. She knew I loved them, but I would never give in and go buy them. I look at onions and think of my brother-in-law, Sam, because he despises every last thing about them.
If I see a Moscow mule on a drink menu, I recall my friend, Jenna, since we spent many nights laughing into obliteration with a mule in hand.
According to the Harvard Press, the part of the brain called the hippocampus not only forms, but also keeps our memories safe. The hippocampus also happens to regulate the hormones involved in appetite, digestion and overall eating rituals and behaviors.
My mother absolutely loves Carvel ice cream cake. I mean, don’t we all? But, she really has a special place in her heart for that perfectly layered crunch. It dates back to sometime in the 1960s, when her father, Benny, would pick her up from school and take her for an after-school snack.
My mother has my wonderful grandpa to thank, but also the hormone dopamine. Dopamine is in charge of our motivation and reward system, and also turns short-term memories into long-term memories.
The combination of the two functions causes motivation to be reinforced by memory.
This explains why the ice cream cake not only makes her feel that she is winning by having a special treat, but there’s also a loving association.
The dopamine reward system is not ruled by hunger, which also explains why even though you just finished a huge Thanksgiving meal, you still eye your sister’s special carrot cake with gusto. Cake is a reward, and we like rewards.
Food memories, such as dopamine-fueled Famous Amos cookies, can be wonderful, welcomed thoughts. On the contrary, what about those memories you want to forget, particularly the ones involving exes?
Taylor Swift seems to think it’s quite easy to shake them off. Not to get all zen on you, but there is a quote from Buddha that always crosses my mind: “The root of suffering is attachment.”
Is there a way to associate and be pleasantly detached? The answer I’ve learned is that you learn to live with the memories.
You accept the thoughts as they come, and then go forward. We'll never forget that person, that food, that smell or taste, but in time, we'll learn to re-associate ourselves with the Vinho Verde or the Herbs de Provence.
We'll rise up beyond our emotional reflexes and learn to use our logic. We'll be pleasantly surprised when we realize we no longer flinch at our ex's favorite food. We'll surprise ourselves when we almost forget we ever cherished that food, or that special meal.
In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea to go try a new cuisine and start to make some new, healthy food associations.
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