Why are Our Food Memories So Strong?

“Cooking comes down to two main things: nourishment, and creating good memories”

This is what Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller told Eater Magazine when asked the simple question “what is cooking?” It is surprising that even at the highest levels of culinary art, the most important things remain simple. No matter the qualifications, the training undergone, the skills gained: everything comes down to creating good memories. 

The most powerful memories can be created from foods as simple as a loaf of bread. Hadley Bergstorm, assistant professor of psychology at Vassar, explains that food and the memories it creates are deeply reinforcing. When we eat, all five of our senses are activated: the stimuli of the environment in which we consumed the food become locked in the food itself. Susan Whitbourne, professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains that food memories are especially powerful because they form without any conscious editing. So, food memories take on attributes of situations in which they were acquired, and we often remember details and situations we didn’t think we would. 

This is also why food becomes nostalgic so easily - it reminds us of the context in which the food was prepared or consumed, and the food itself becomes intertwined with what it means to us. The memories that linger in food tend to be hidden from us until the first bite, when suddenly a forgotten memory re-surfaces. The first bite can transport us back to the first time we tried this food, or remind us of the people we shared it with. Food hides within itself memories of people we haven’t spoken to in years, or of a time long gone.  people gathered around a table Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels For many of us, food memories are tied with people. Frederick Goodall tells The New York Times that growing up, he would cook a big meal for the whole family with his mother every Sunday. As his mother talked about things on her mind, she let her child know that he could do the same: “the kitchen was a safe place where we could talk about anything...our bond grew stronger as we shared our deepest thoughts while stirring pots and chopping vegetables.” In many households, the kitchen or dining room becomes so much more than a place to eat food - it is a place where we can spend time with our families, have difficult conversations, share laughs, and make friends. 

In many cultures, hospitality, and sharing food is a key part of socialising. In this Greek blog, the author remembers sharing food as a way of justifying the blessing of having it. Similarly, there are few Russian households you would enter without being offered tea, and something to have it with. 

Wherever we are in the world as the holiday season approaches, many of us are doubtless going to find ourselves in kitchens and dining rooms, sharing in the festivities with our friends, families, or significant others. As new memories are created, I hope we all take a moment to appreciate not only the nourishment, but also the good experiences food provides us with.