The Aroma of Memory–and the foods of family history

It is interesting to me, the phenomena of memory. I particularly like the way Victorian’s perceived memory; Athena Vrettos talks about several theories of “displaced memory” (memory that has come loose from someone of something). It was about “how recollections could become disconnected from individual personalities; how memories could wander both temporally and physically; how reminiscences could be transferred to other minds; and how residues of human emotions and experiences might adhere to the material world” (Vrettos 200). I particularly like the idea of “transcendental consciousness,” where material objects were thought capable of transmitting memories. Much of this has been debunked, of course, but there is one way in which I feel such transcendental ideas still have cultural valence: smell memory.

It is a psychological concept, our way of mapping events to aroma. Apparently only two synapses separate the “olfactory nerve from the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotion and also in emotional memory” (Herz & Engen, 1996). That’s a scientific explanation–but lets face it, we have all had the real, tangible experience, haven’t we? Where the scent of new mown grass reminds us of childhood and grass-stained jeans in summer on the farm…where the smell of soap takes us back to the potpourri our aunt kept in a dish near the telephone stand. But for me (and for those of you who read this blog regularly, this will not be a surprise), it really comes down to food. Yesterday, I heated the iron skillet and tossed new potatoes with a seasoning salt from the local market–and I was transported back to age eight.

My grandmother lived on a farm. Well, she lived on a number of different farms, and in villages, and in towns. She was something of a gypsy that way. But when I think of her, I tend to think of the farm kitchen… and of Lawry’s® Seasoning Salt.

Regardless of the meal, there was sure to be some form of pork (either in the chops or the bacon fat) and a plentiful dose of the Salt, magic reddish-brown fairy dust of flavor. I can see her, too. She was a voluptuous woman–a knock-out when she was young who settled into a comfortably plump and cheery old age. Her hair was salt-and-pepper; when short it curled round her face. She wore glasses, had laugh lines–and her laugh: loud, wonderful, a trumpeting of happy cackles. She’d had a hard life, but life was never hard upon her. And while I would never call her a culinary genius (she really stuck to the basics, in retrospect), I fondly recall every meal.

My grandfather was a man of pretty basic likes and dislikes. And he liked pork chops and green fried tomatoes. (I know most people say fried green tomatoes, but that isn’t how we do it in my family…so there). I was a little snipe, a curly headed urchin, and my grandpa (whom I called papa-daddy) and I would fight over the mounds of crispy tomatoes–and over the “crunchies.” These were magical. The gold nuggets of the food pyramid. After dredging the chops in flour, my grandmother put them in hot bacon fat. Leftover flour would absorb both the cooking meat flavor and the bacon, crisping up to a tiny flavor-packed granule that (in my young mind) were fit for gods. My grandpa would always lose, of course, I always got the most of these blessed nuggets. Funny, isn’t it. All this from the smell of salt.

And so, in a flash, I am back in my kitchen (a small kiosk by comparison). I smile, but there is a world of difference between now and then. I’ve lost my grandparents; papa-daddy first, then grandma–twelve years ago, today. I miss them. I miss those meals, too–in my pork free, gluten free world, there are no chops and no crunchies.

But I still have Lawry’s®. And I have my memories. The aroma of the past.

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One thought on “The Aroma of Memory–and the foods of family history

  1. “Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, as distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocent and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night? Can I say she ever changed, when my remembrance brings her back to life, thus only; and, truer to its loving youth than I have been, or man ever is, still holds fast what it cherished then?” David Copperfield

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