At its most foundational, food is fuel that nourishes our bodies. But it’s also so much more than that. The intersection of food and culture is where we find cuisine: food infused with meaning, traditions, historical relevance, and emotional impact.
One place where we see all of this come together is in the memories we have that are tied to food. At ZENB, we believe that some of the best memories are those created at tables where we’ve gathered with friends and family, the moments when we pause in the middle of life’s fast pace and connect with those we hold dear. Part of our “why” — the reason we are so laser-focused on creating the highest quality plant-based foods — is because we want to inspire our community to create wonderful memories through shared meals, both on busy weeknights and special occasions.
Just like how a certain song can instantly bring you back to that one magical summer, food memories are powerful and transportive. They are so tied to our emotional cores that something as simple as a ripe strawberry or the aroma of brewing coffee can evoke strong emotions and vivid visuals in our mind’s eye.
But why are food memories so impactful? Writers, artists, anthropologists and historians have explored this phenomenon closely in works throughout history, from Proust’s famous madeleine to Netflix’s High on the Hog. Psychologists and neuroscientists have also delved deeply into the science behind food memory which has spawned a whole field of research and study.
Curious to know how food memories work, and why they’re so often tied to nostalgia and fond remembrances? Welcome to Food Memory 101 — class is in session!
- When it comes to storing memories, the hippocampus is one of the most critical parts of the brain, embedded in the temporal lobe of each cerebral cortex. Part of the limbic system (which regulates emotions, learning, and memory), the hippocampus helps us to form long-term and spatial memories. It has a strong connection to other areas of the brain that process smells, and deal with emotions.
It’s this connection that some scientists believe is responsible for the phenomenon that happens when a taste or smell triggers strong emotions or memories in an almost subconscious way.
- A strong tie between food and memories may also be a function of evolution. Because food is essential to survival, the hippocampus may have evolved over time to store extra vivid memories around food so that our hunter-gatherer ancestors could remember when and how they found food.
There is also some powerful brain chemistry at play. Food can activate the reward centers in our brains, and foods that are tied to specific moments (like a cake on your birthday or special foods at family functions) can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. Dopamine also creates pathways in the hippocampus that help turn short-term memories into long-term memories.
This could explain why some foods bring up childhood memories. The dopamine triggered in your growing brain at that sleepover pizza party or ice cream parlor after a sports game carved pathways that cemented those memories in the hippocampus.
Fond food memories are also about so much more than just flavor. In those moments, we’re using all of our senses: seeing the scene, tasting and smelling and feeling the texture of the food, and hearing the laughter and conversations happening all around us. This combination of stimuli creates an immersive experience which helps the brain to create more vivid, reinforced memories.
- Nostalgia, the warm, sentimental feeling associated with times past, is one of the most potent kinds of memory, specifically because it is so tied to emotion. Feeling safe and cared for as a child is such a deeply human kind of happiness, and often tied to food memories at holidays, grandparent’s houses, or other special places or occasions. For many of us, that’s where the idea of “comfort food” is rooted. Of course it varies from person to person and culture to culture: For some, the nostalgia trigger might be a simple, steaming bowl of mac and cheese; for others, it might be congee or bao buns or biriyani. Even as we grow up and experience new things, some of those prime comforting, nostalgic foods never leave us.