“There is something evanescent, temporary and fragile about food. You make it, it goes, and what remains are memories.” –Jacques Pepin
At a lecture, one of my psychology professors in college discussed the importance of creating memorable memories for children. He recalled how during every Passover, he would gather his grandchildren to make horseradish from scratch–peeling the pungent root, producing a smelly mess that everyone had a hand in creating. They grumbled about it and would no doubt have preferred playing video games or playing on an iPad, but, he reminded his audience, they now will have those memories of not only the stinky process but the quality family time and bonding that took place in the kitchen, forever.
Affective memory, or sense memory, is when you drop into an experience you’ve had that has been triggered by one of your senses, like smell. Think of a time when you inhaled the perfume of an ex-girlfriend and immediately remembered that time together in Mexico, or smelled a soup simmering on the stove at your friend’s house that transported you back into your grandmother’s kitchen, when you were at her waist as she stirred a brothy something on the stove. The French chef Jacques Pepin wrote a piece about this in the New York Times not long ago that really spoke to me. “Affective memory assails you when you least expect it and is felt more profoundly than conventional memory…They enrich your day-to-day life and your relationships with your family and friends. When I smell or see certain recipes, I also see my family…there is no separating food from the visual.”
It’s no accident that the kitchen is often the hub of the home, the gathering place for stories swapped, tears shed, hugs exchanged and laughs shared. Food and cooking are intricately connected to our sense of selves and what becomes our memories and connections to people and places we’ve lost long ago. We eat dinner together as a family, reviewing the day and getting each other’s opinions on decisions, big and small, to be made. The underlying theme, of course, is love. So much love is expressed in food, the Jewish and Italian and Greek (and others) grandmothers telling their grandchildren to eat, eat. And we all know that food cooked with tenderness and care is healthier, has better energy and tastes richer.
“The majority of people can live well with 20 or 30 recipes and, in fact, all of their family traditions and rituals are expressed through those recipes,” Pepin says. “For most people, the dishes that matter are the dishes that have been cooked with love, dishes that are part of a family’s structure, passed down from a grandmother, mother, spouse, aunt, uncle or cousin. Those dishes remain much more embedded in our taste memory than the recipes and dishes of great restaurants, even for a professional cook like me.”
Indeed, as my brother has been preparing to recreate the gefilte fish my grandmother made every Passover, he tells my nephew more about her and how she made her signature holiday specialty. We’d planned to spend one full day cooking over the weekend before Passover, like we have for many other holidays in recent years, like Thanksgivings and Hanukkah. Our time spent poring over recipes, shopping for the food, grating, chopping and assembling brings us closer. We put on music and ask each other, “What do you think? Does it need more spice?” My 4-year-old nephew joins in and feels a sense of accomplishment that he had a hand in our holiday meal. It also helps us bridge the past, since we’re continuing on with traditions that previous generations have carried on for centuries. We’re part of something bigger by taking part in this ceremony of sorts. And now, we’ll have these memories. And even when the creations don’t turn out perfectly, it’s not the point. A dry chicken or bland vegetable dish doesn’t matter. We encourage each other and have words of praise for the outcome. At the very least, it was all cooked with love