Proustian Memory and Comfort Food
Food is just food until it isn’t.
For me, it was eating litchis, their ripe pink skin giving way to the sticky, sugary manna that used to run all the way to my elbows as a child until I figured out the solution many summers later: eat them over a sink.
We’ll talk about other experiences in a second. For the moment, let’s stick to food. I strongly suspect that everything you’ve ever tasted, you relate to:
- The first time you ever tasted it
- The memory of how it made you feel the first time you tasted it
(and maybe even
3. The memory of the last/most recent time you tasted it.)
This applies especially well to foods you cherish (especially if they are things you don’t eat as often), but perhaps also applies to foods you have an especially strong negative reaction towards.
Like the formation of other types of memory, I think this happens at a cellular level, where your brain finally learns the connections between a food and the experience of it, and every time you eat it again, that memory becomes stronger and stronger until it is codified as a psychedelic rainbow in the melty snake-curls of your grey matter. Over time, you may even forget the original experience and just remember the emotion associated with it.
This is a well-studied psychological phenomenon called involuntary memory, a term coined by Marcel Proust after he realised the smell of madeleines dunked in tea reminded him of his childhood.
I learnt about Proustian moments like the above after writing this article (there being no new ideas and all), but they explain perfectly why it feels so good to drink a cup of chai with a butter biscuit that you last enjoyed on a carpet in your godmother’s house six years ago. The memory of that chai will always be tied to the pure joy of that moment, and compound-chained to the other moments you have enjoyed a good cup of milky chai: at 3 pm with your sister’s vegan chocolate cake on a workday on the sweltering island during the pandemic; as a shot with ginger on the way to class on a foggy Delhi winter morning, your classmates shivering in four sweaters, and you taking yours off from the warmth of walking and the chai; with your grandparents in the early evening, served with delicious, warm, fried, salty things.
This idea was explored in a recent issue of Vittles, where Andrea Oskis “hijacks” a Brillat-Savarin quote to say “‘Tell me what you comfort eat and I’ll tell you who[m] you love.’ It is our relationships and attachments that most influence whether a food is identified as a comfort food.”
This kind of sensory memory has more time to develop if your first moment of emotive recall was as a child because over time, more memory links are formed between special foods and special events. However, events that leave an impression can also lead to new food associations being created as an adult. Things I have eaten and enjoyed lately include tender mushrooms on avocado toast that my husband, Arturo, called the “best breakfast in the world” when I made it for us one sunny morning; many, many rounds of my Moroccan friend’s mint tea, served with a delicious crescent of crushed almonds, toasted semolina and orange blossom flower essence; and the carrot cake of our zoom wedding, sourced from the cafeteria down the street from my in-laws’, with a Lego bride and groom on on top. Each time I eat these things, I find myself enjoying them at two levels, in the now and the very first time I ate them. Half-flashback, half-present moment meditation.
This applies to things you hate or have temporary aversions to as well! Fried eggs with tomatoes, uncooked eggplants, desserts with cinnamon, cheap tequila, [insert your own unpopular food revulsion here]. Your most memorable/recent experience with that food formed a bond of repugnance in your brain. That’s why the smell of it can bring back such strong feelings of disgust for a while after you’ve had it.
These visceral reactions to food make sense at an evolutionary level: Good physical feelings, eat more. Bad physical feelings, potential poison, don’t eat again. Ironically, millions of years later, diet culture calls the same nourishing high-fat, high-sugar foods that we are genetically predisposed to binge on ‘bad food’, inspiring negative emotional feelings like guilt, fear and anxiety around them. Go figure.
Let’s consider these ‘comfort foods’. By comfort food, I don’t mean binge-eating ice cream until your eyes roll backward in your head, rather the kinds of foods with which you associate a kind of warmth and connection. The foods that bring you comfort, in other words. Oskis refers to work done by her colleague, Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, who studies comfort food as an experience rather than the food itself.
“I tend to think of it in terms of classical conditioning,” Gabriel says in a 2015 piece in The Atlantic. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging. But if, when you’re a child, those connections are more anxiety-ridden … then when you’re older and you eat those foods, you may feel less happy.”
This kind of thinking can be extended to any experience you’ve had in life, e.g. when you’re walking in the park in a foreign city and the smell of your kindergarten teacher’s perfume comes wafting through and it reminds you of the Macarena and macaroni with salt and olive oil; when you see the sun shining orange through the trees as you did after 30 km of traipsing through the countryside when you finally made it to a town for the night; when a song comes on the radio that makes you think of someone or a time in your life and it makes you well up for no reason at all.
When Pop Psychology Works
Though psychologists refer to this as involuntary memory, I think that we can use the same factors that conditioned us to generate positive and negative emotions to certain foods to instead create new experiences around foods, events or activities we may have tricky relationships with.
Using exposure therapy and classical conditioning, you can slowly condition yourself to like, or at least be less averse to things you may not have before. Douse bitter spinach with butter and cream if you want (or broccoli with sugar for that matter), eat fear foods or go bungee jumping with people that make you feel safe, settle into those blue rainy days with a mug of something warm and a cosy blanket.
For a few years now, I’ve been using similar strategies to reframe my own perceptions around foods I grew up not liking (we all have them). What helped most was changing the context in which I tried new things in order to build new associations with them: eating them in new forms, around people I feel safe with, at different times of day, in new combinations, or in a pretty plate with nice music in the background. Things I eat now that I would never have considered before include: cheese, chillies, cinnamon, coffee and carbs, holy carbs. (I’m sensing a trend here…)
Conclusions (and Other C-Things)
Sometimes, unexplained emotions or characteristics that we think are a part of our identities are extremely ingrained in our perception of ourselves in the world. But I like to think that we are forever growing and changing, and that we can at least chip away at our fears and aversions with a cuddle and a chisel. And maybe some chai.
What is comfort food to you? What is a food you absolutely can’t stand? How strongly do you remember the first time you ate either of them? And when was the last time you cried when you heard a song in the wild?