There is something fabulous and even miraculous about the act of eating. Savoring food is the one thing we do everyday that is direct and unmediated. Taste does not lie. It’s pure. The impressions it leaves are sharp, invigorating, and emotional. And those impressions can last a lifetime.
What is it that makes the mere act of eating a fabulous and at times mesmerizing event?
According to Stuart Firestein, chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences, memory and taste are intrinsically linked. Together with smell, taste has the ability to bring forth vivid memories of specific times and places, triggering a wave of emotions and sensations. This moment of recollection is oftentimes called ”Proustian experience’ after the famous madeleine scene found in Proust’s renown ‘Remembrance of Things Past.The passage narrates how after savoring a madeleine cookie dipped in his lemon the writer began to remember of when he was a kid visiting his auntie after church and that he was given the same cookies with tea by the woman.
Smell/taste related memories are always emotionally laden because you ‘don’t smell something and remember a page of text or an equation’, as Firestein says. Indeed, we all have nostalgic memories revolving around food which took place in our childhood. It might happen for instance that when smelling a certain dish we are suddenly transported into our grandmother’s kitchen or into our favorite uncle’s dining room. Martin Yan, a chef and the author of numerous cookbooks, notes how the mere aroma of fresh garlic and ginger, the sweet smell of dark soy or of steamed pork bring him back to the familiar sight of his mother’s tiny kitchen: ‘To this day, whenever I came across that same wonderful smell of sausages steaming over plain white rice, I would always think of home. And I would be four years old all over again.’
Equally remarkable are those memories food-related experienced while traveling. In fact, the ways we eat and the contexts within which the eating takes place shape our traveling experiences. These memories are sometimes reminiscences of a fine dinner at an expensive restaurant or of an extraordinary lunch. However, the ones that keeps coming back as a beautiful haunting song are the un-glamorous ones (a sandwich eaten in the wilderness, noodles on a crowded Japanese noodles bar or a simple pasta quickly prepared by our Italian friend) because they are the meals that left us with a sharp, invigorating and emotional connection with the places visited. Our view of the world is forever changed just by a simple dish.
One of my most recent, and surely ever-lasting, memory which combines food and traveling took place only a couple of months ago. September was about to start and that meant that my birthday was just around the corner. I usually plan a fairly simple and small party with my friends but this time I wanted to do something different. I wanted to celebrate it in New Zealand. The trip was a week-long journey from Wellington to Christchurch (via ferry and train) and it was planned to be a Lord of the Rings themed trip.
I spent my birthday walking around, gazing and contemplating Mount Sunday, situated in the middle of the broad valley of the Rangitata River and Erewhon and up to three hours ride from Christchurch. For those who are obsessed fan of Peter Jackson’s movies Mt Sunday is where the set of Edoras was built. Together with four more LOTR fans and our fantastic guide we ventured into this incredible landscape. Being surrounded by that breath-taking view was overwhelming. We eagerly took countless pictures with swords replicas while listening to our guide’s stories about the filming of the movies until it was lunch time. There was nothing fancy about our lunch: a choice of pork or chicken accompanied with green salad on a white and cheesy bread. And yet, in that moment, there was not anything more delicious than those sandwiches eaten on a colorful picnic blanket and precariously seated on the edge of a windy hill. That was absolutely heaven on earth. The presence of my fellowship, the lunch and the landscapes and the fact that it was my birthday made that moment one of my favorites. Of course, having a glass of bubbles with our sandwiches helped the sense of stupor evoked by the stunning experience. It was then that I understood that I had to keep on traveling because I wanted to have a million more moments like that one.