This post is going to be a little out of our normal wheelhouse. There’s not going to be a lot of glib references, or interesting etymologies. Because today’s topic doesn’t mesh with those things. It’s something more personal, more intimate. Maybe too much so. We won’t know until we’re there. There will, of course, still be jokes. I just wanted you to know that today is more about…an aesthetic.
So, what are we aesthetically inspecting? Food memories. I recently read a piece by a woman for Saveur Magazine, who talks about her wild nights in Jerusalem during college .She and her friend would stop at a restaurant for vegetable soup, midst their mall trips and club visits and study sessions. And recently, she returned, after decades away, bringing her children with her. And she found what so many find when they pursue the tastes of their youths: they’re gone. The same restaurant, the same recipe, but something’s changed. Her story, as I allude, is not unusual. But sometimes, people get lucky: they go hunting for the flavor, and they do find it.
I wanted to talk today about WHY such memories are so much more potent, share some of mine, and ways you can find them again in your own life.
Built-In Mnemonics, and not like that Movie.
The first explanation is actually pretty simple: Food memories are potent because eating is one of rather few tasks that, when performed correctly, uses all five senses. This is why it’s so common for people to have vivid, long-lasting food-based memories. You’re focused, in a way you are in relatively few things in your life, on this specific experience. Science also notes that it makes sense for your body to be really into remembering strong feelings connected to foods: that’s how it tracks what makes you sick. This is called “conditioned food aversion”, which I called in an earlier post “White Girl Tequila Effect”, because I know a lot of white girls who don’t drink tequila because they gave themselves alcohol poisoning with it once. So it turns out my quasi-racism has a pseudo-scientific basis! Nice.
Did someone say "Quasi Racism"?
Psychologists also note that early food memories have broader symbolic contexts: that the reason you can never make your grandmother’s version of Chicken Noodle Soup isn’t because you read her recipe wrong, but rather that your house isn’t the place of warmth and safety that hers was to you as a child. Your version isn’t a loving gift from a protector, but…just a meal that you made.
This has all been kinda heavy, so let’s branch into my personal theory: another part of it, I believe, is focus. As noted earlier, eating takes all five senses. It’s also something you focus on. And especially as a child, you do so in a state of pure absorption, soaking in the experience like a ratty little sponge. It’s a matter of being fully present. And I have an example!
Hot Diggity Dog
There’s a bite of food I’ve been trying to replicate for several years. It’s got something of a silly history. See, some years ago, there was a business named Munchy’z. It was a hookah bar and sandwich shop. But the laws changed, the owner rebranded, expanded, and then sold the business so it would stop competing with his OTHER business, the new owner built a different business in the location, just general business chicanery. But, throughout all that time, one constant remained the same: the Munchy’z Dog.
One of the weirder aspects of my authorial life is the number of times I have to call, text, or otherwise contact people at strange hours with strange requests. "Hey, Bryce, do you have a picture of a Hot Dog?" is a strange question at midnight.
See, Munchy’z is in a fantastic location: the street where the campus ends and Greek Row begins. Further, since WSU is a dry campus, it’s the physically closest location that alcohol can be sold to the school. As such, the street has 2 bars inside of 200 feet of each other, with Munchy’z in-between. And during the weekend, especially game weekends, Munchy’z would put up a hot dog stand. (The new owner continues this practice, even using the Munchy’z logo, despite the original business being gone.)
These hot dogs are, to my knowledge, standard Costco hot dogs. They come, if you want, with grilled onions that have been seasoned with celery seed, and many put a smear of Cream Cheese on the bun, in “seattle dog” fashion. (Why is a hot dog with grilled onions and cream cheese a “Seattle Dog”? Good question, no time.) They sell for something like $4-5, and are the saving grace of many an inebriated Co-ed, Greek, or sports fan. Sometimes all three simultaneously!
Now, I’m certain my “first” Munchy’z dog wasn’t actually my first: I probably tried one or two and didn’t “get” it. But, one night, walking out of The Coug with beer buzzing away my extraneous thoughts, I had what I think of as my first Munchy’z dog. (Jesus, writing out Munchy’z 9 times turns it into gibberish.) And I GOT it. Hot and cold, creamy, meaty, slightly spicy (Jalapeño cream cheese), it just punched me in the mouth, in a good way.
So, what’s the point? Why spend 300 words talking about a hot dog? To illustrate something, and trust me, this is going to get awkward in a hurry, so pull out now if you wanna stay clean. (That was…unfortunate wording.) But, the memory of that bite, on a dark October night in Pullman, is burned into me. By comparison...whew…This is gonna suck. BY COMPARISON, I AM MUCH MORE FOGGY ABOUT THE NIGHT I LOST MY VIRGINITY. Yeah, this is the talk we’re about to have. Now that I’ve ripped the band-aid of my discomfort off, let me try to ease you guys into this.
Jon ain’t no Don Juan
I don’t know if you can tell this, dear readers, from the constant inundation of neuroses, fractured self-identity, and intense reliance on trivia in my posts, but I…tend to overthink things. I’ve mentioned before that I am uncomfortable attempting things I have not studied and analyzed. Most of the time, this isn’t a big hindrance; yeah, it can suck if you need a simple decision from me, especially for something like “Where should we eat”, but where it really kicks in is anytime there’s no ‘right’ answer.
Yes, thank you random anime dude for illustrating the problem.
As such, it may shock you to learn that I am not particularly adept with women. Oh, I have plenty of friends who are women, frequent conversations with women, women who know me mostly have a positive opinion of me (as far as I know), so on and so forth. But, go ask them if they’ve ever been on a date with me. Or seen me go on a date, met someone I dated. To my knowledge, I’ve been on…3 dates in my life. I’ve had sex with 3 women. The women in those groups do not overlap. Because initiating romance is something that I can’t analyze. Not to any useful degree. It’s an instinctual, chemical moment. And Sober Jon doesn’t do those too well.
DRUNK JON, on the other hand, is a much less cerebrally confined creature. Turns out it’s hard to overthink things when you can’t think straight! Drunk Jon acts more…purely. More genuine. And rather impulsive, which is how I found myself making out with a young woman at a party after talking shit at her three times because I was in a bad mood. I am fairly certain the exchange “Jon, why don’t we talk more?” “Because you don’t say anything interesting,” took place. I do not know if she thought those were all intended playfully, if she just didn’t care because she was into me, or what, but I DO suspect she’ll read this, so THAT’LL BE FUN.
Apparently, resizing gifs makes them stop moving. Eh, the joke is still obvious.
It was a few parties later that we ended up at my place. And a potentially tragic thing happened. NOT THE SEX! That was great! Probably- I mean I may not have been good! THIS IS THE OVERTHINKING I MENTIONED. WHAT I MEANT WAS- AHEM. Yes. Time to stop shouting. Ahem. What I meant was that, as we returned to my place, we transitioned from “Drunk Jon” to “Sober Jon”. (NOTE: I do not ACTUALLY view my actions when intoxicated as coming from a completely separate entity. I merely use this as a shorthand to illustrate the shift in my personality that accompanies drinking.)
So, at some point, we are literally on my bed, and Drunk Jon thinks “Am I good at making out? I don’t know. Maybe I should try it. Eh, if we think we’re bad…FUCK. These are SOBER thoughts.” In any case, somehow I stumble into ongoing sexual relations. And THIS IS WHERE WE GET THE PAY-OFF. (Also unfortunately worded, buddy) See, you would think, moment like that, would stick in a man’s mind. And it does. But I know there are gaps. Details I missed, because I spent a good portion of that process in my own head, “Is this right? Am I making her happy? Should I change X?”
And THAT’S what I wanted to bring up: FOCUS. I remember that Hot Dog bite because it was the totality of my existence at that moment. I was in the moment, and living it fully. My virginity, I was nervous and overthinking it. I got better, or at least, smoother. I assume, since we had sex several times over several months afterwards. But, you know, it’s not like I got a review of my progress. I just assume my increased confidence translated into at least SOME increased ability, you know. Or don’t. I AM ADRIFT IN A FUCKING OCEAN OF MISSING INTEL. WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT THIS?
MOVING ON: one more food memory, since, Jesus, that was half a post of awkwardness, so why stop there?
Chicken Soup for the Soul(-Less)
Earlier, I claimed that Sober Jon doesn’t know how to be romantic. That’s a lie. Sober Jon knows how to be romantic as all hell. It’s goddamn disgustingly adorable, if I say so myself. We’re talking “walk a mile in the rain to bring a sick girl ice cream”, “surprise a girl too busy studying to eat with a dessert delivered to her door”, fucking “1,500 words in poetry every Valentine’s Day” romantic. The problem is transitioning from “romantic/cute” to “intimate/sexual”. But that’s not what this is about. This is about love.
This next part may sound somewhat tragic, but please, believe me, it’s not. There was a girl I was in love with, who did not love me the same way. Again, this was fine. My understanding of love has always been…intricate. The Greeks, you may know, had 4 different kinds of love. I have a baseline definition that included many people, and still does: I love someone if I value their happiness more than my own. That seems like a simple enough rule, until you consider how many people it can expand to include: if your friend wants you to go somewhere, and you know you won’t have a good time, but you go anyway to make them happy…surprise.
This was a stronger version. It was an active love. It made me fight to improve myself, to do more. It was a personal love, as I told her when she turned me down: her not returning it didn’t make it less valuable or powerful. It was a little ball of fire I could hold to keep me warm. And, in her own way, she did love me, as one would a brother; and that kept my fire warm, because who I loved, loved me.
And so, one day, she complained of illness, fatigue, some such burden on her mind. (She was studying, at the time, as she oft was.) And I made something for her. I made her Chicken Soup. Specifically, I took the ingredients I had set aside, to make the chicken soup of my childhood for myself, should some foul wind shake me, and instead made it for her. And here’s the thing: it did not look like the soup I ate as a kid. It didn’t have the same broth color or noodle-to-broth ratio. But it tasted right. Because in that moment, I was making it the way I remembered it being made: with warmth, compassion, love, and a specific brand of soup mix that is much harder to find than it should be.
You devious little snake-in-the-grass.
I have made many meals, and I’ve been proud of a lot of my achievements. But that Tupperware container of soup I hauled uphill to campus may be one of the most important meals and achievements I’ve made. Because in that moment, I traveled in time, and brought something forward.
When you think back, to the recipes of your parents, your grandparents, your guardians and loved ones, remember that it’s not simply the food you must recreate. It’s the attitude. That way, you can pass the memory on as strongly as you got it, and one day, they can try to do the same.
MONDAY: JON RETURNS TO ZUCCHINI, PROBABLY, BECAUSE HE HONESTLY HASN’T BEEN COOKING THIS WEEK. HE WAS DOING NERDY INTERNET THINGS, AND BEING EMOTIONALLY HONEST, AND NOW IT’S THURSDAY.