Food Is Memory, Food Is Love

Food Is Memory, Food Is Love

It was a brisk fall night in Boston. I hadn’t yet gotten used to just how brisk those nights could get when my family came for their first visit during my freshman year in college. Determined to keep everyone happy, I did lots of research into the best Italian restaurant in the North End, Boston’s Little Italy, to ensure the menu, seating arrangements, and distance from the T would be just right. What I took most comfort in, though, was where I had planned to go for dessert—the famous Mike’s Pastry. My dad had heard about the tourist haven from his friends at work and knew what he wanted to order weeks in advance. No pressure there.

After dinner, which I have no memory of, we made our way over to the brightly lit shop and waited for maybe a half hour on the line that wound out the door (I remember that, because I was pretty freezing in my light coat)—typical for a weekend night, I’d learn. Inside, the ordering and fulfillment process was a well-oiled machine, which challenged indecisive people like me by making us walk by a long case of cakes, pies, cookies, pastries, even ice cream and gelato before getting to the register. Struggling to choose among the half-dozen items that appealed, I ultimately chose a German chocolate cake (this was pre-vegan days). The cake was several layers high, each separated by a sticky, creamy layer of coconut-laced frosting. When we got back to my family’s hotel room, I remember opening up the styrofoam clamshell and savoring each forkful of cake, then icing, layer by layer. (A few months later, my friends would bring back to campus several slices of that same cake for my birthday.) Nearby in a scratchy gray armchair, my dad had a different process. He ate his two “lobster tail” cream puffs, each as big as an adult hand, in more or less one bite. Cheeks swelled like a foraging chipmunk, his expression said he approved of his choice, of the day, of me. 

I remember once complaining that all the major holidays my family celebrated were centered around food. Why couldn’t we do something else, like go for a hike or play games or share some other experience, as a way to honor significant occasions? No one ever gave me a straight answer, but over time I’ve accepted what people all over the world have known for eons: that the reason food and holidays are so intertwined is because of the inherent memory-making quality of food. 

Whether it’s the particular aromas and flavors of a dish, the process of making it handed down by a relative or victoriously mastered from a cookbook, or the people we shared it with, food nourishes our body and mind in highly impressionable ways. Ayurveda ties this back to the elements—food, as a gross and nourishing substance, comprises predominantly earth and water elements, both tied to the function of kapha dosha in the brain to make memories stick (literally). There’s also the whole concept of rasa, a word with many meanings including taste, juice, flavor, and sap. As Maya Tiwari explains: 

In Ayurveda, the vast spectrum of taste, rasa, begins long before we actually eat and taste food. Rasa says that ‘taste’ begins with a complex chain of reactions that the body/mind experiences from its initial perception of that food by a sense organ to the stimulation of the brain cells that excite the appetite. Appetite is not simply the initial hunger for food, or yearning from a substance that will create balance in the mind/body. It is the principle of maternal emotions and natural aesthetics that upholds our nourishment and lives.

The arrival of spring holidays like Easter, Passover, Holi, and others—festivals that in their own ways celebrate freedom, rebirth, and maternal love—will bring up their own food memories for those who celebrate, but food memories happen all the time. Like the soupy tofu I used to order at my favorite restaurant to take work clients in midtown, which represented to me an autonomy and level of success in my work; the cafe au lait I would order every Sunday at Joe Coffee on Columbus and W. 68th, which I sipped in ritualistic peace amidst the hum of fellow New Yorkers while eating my overnight oats between church and yoga class; the oat cakes from Heidi Swanson’s book I made at the onset of binging Gilmore Girls; the first recipe I made and tested for Root & Nourish (it’s on page 128); the the four-layer chocolate cake I made from Martha Stewart for my first birthday living in New York, when my parents came to visit and huddled around my tiny kitchen table for the meal I prepared; the other chocolate cake (sensing a pattern here…?) I brought to a family barbecue, which earned me the highest compliment I could imagine from my dad: “This is really good for a vegan cake” 🤔 

Just thinking about these foods makes my rasa—my juices—surge and enliven my whole being. My mouth is literally salivating (more kapha) as I write these words, even as my mind time travels to the exact states I was in when I made and ate them. And for all the pleasure they bring to my mind, there are many other foods that seem to send poison through that same rasa. Foods I won’t likely make or eat again because of the way they made me feel pain, or loneliness, or fear, or abandonment, or shattering grief. 

Just like we can’t always control the outcome of a cooking experience, we can’t always control the memories that get stuck in our bodies around certain foods. It’s not in our best interest, though, to allow our minds to let those hurts, no matter how big or small, to fester and ferment and make us sick. Our tastes can change with time, but we need to give ourselves permission to change our minds first. You see, the body is a slow animal and can sometimes take a while to get on board with new ideas. Deciding with conviction that you want to cut your coffee habit, for instance, won’t prevent the caffeine withdrawal headaches from coming. 

But here’s where the memories of food in our bodies can support change as much as they challenge it. Our food memories are not just our own, you see. Because our bodies are also five-elemental beings, we all know what it tastes like to eat food in its natural forms. Our molecules will recognize themselves in whole grains, un-treated produce, and foods processed in natural ways like fermenting, baking, and good ole grinding, and welcome them in like old friends. When we consume high-quality food, that gets turned into high-quality rasa, a physical substance that circulates around our whole body keeping us lubricated and hydrated and full of immunity. From high-quality rasa, all the other tissue systems of the body also get nourished, all the way down to ojas. The byproduct of our digest process, ojas is the essence of our gross bodies, imparting vitality, radiance, and endurance. As written in the Ashtanga Hrdayam, “Increase of ojas makes for contentment, nourishment of the body and increase of strength” (Sutrasthana XI.41).

There’s a multitude of different flavors in those foods—which is why there’s a multitude of nutrition and individual responses from them. What whole foods share, though, and what we as whole beings also share, is the most important taste of all. Love.

We eat to feel energized, to honor important moments in our lives, and to give and receive love. Remember that as you prepare your meals today, and maybe for longer, too. Ask yourself, what do I want my body to remember about this food? What kind of love am I giving myself in this bite?

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