The Taste of Memories

Some fantasy novels are notorious for an emphasis on food. We get loving descriptions of feasts and know exactly what the characters eat on their journeys. Reading the Shire portions of either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will make you hungry, since hobbits love their food.

Food can be an important facet of worldbuilding. I have a writer friend who creates cuisines for each of the cultures in his fantasy world, figuring out what ingredients and spices they’d have and how that would come together to make the kinds of foods that culture would eat and where food fits into each culture.

I don’t seem to be that kind of writer. I’m lucky if I remember that my characters need to eat. The copyeditor on my Enchanted, Inc. books used to joke that she was the designated Jewish mother of my characters because she’d make notes asking how long it’s been since the characters had eaten and suggesting I put in a mention of them getting food if they’d gone too long without a meal. Figuring out what they’d be eating so I could describe it wouldn’t even occur to me.

Which is odd, when I think about it, because I love to cook. I like trying new recipes, and I put a lot of thought into menu planning. I base my meal plans not only on what ingredients are available and what I’m hungry for, but also on the weather, the mood I’m in, and whether it’s any kind of special occasion.

I also seem to link food to memories and emotions. The food I’m eating when something that makes me feel really emotional happens will forever be linked in my mind with that event or emotion. There’s a recipe I’ve never been able to make myself eat, even though it was something I like, because the first time I made it, I got some upsetting news while I was cooking, and now in my mind, that food is what “upsetting” tastes like. There are also positive associations, foods that make me happy when I eat them because I associate them with something good.

This week, I’m reclaiming a couple of foods. One is one of my favorite bread recipes. I just about live on this bread from fall through winter and even into spring. It’s hearty and travels well, so I bake a loaf and cut slices to take with me to conventions so I can have tea and bread in my room before I have to face people. Until this year, my main emotional connection to this bread is conventions. The taste makes me think of quiet mornings in a hotel room. But this year, I’d just baked a loaf before the big deep freeze and power outage. It was good that I had it because it was something I could eat without needing power to cook it, but because of that, the taste started making me think of freezing mornings spent huddled in a blanket by my fireplace, worrying about whether I’d get power back, whether my pipes would freeze. After I got power back, I didn’t want to touch that bread. I was too busy cooking other things for breakfast. The last part of the loaf got moldy, which had never happened before. I’ve never made that bread last long enough to go bad.

I didn’t want to ruin this bread for myself, so since it got cool again this week, I made another loaf. I’m remembering how much I like it, and I’m trying to move away from the bad memories. I guess it helps that now that the cold week is well into the past and I know it came out okay for me, I can look back on it somewhat fondly as a kind of adventure (in the same way, I get nostalgic about things like having the flu because I don’t remember the misery, only the coziness of snuggling up in blankets and letting myself watch movies all day).

I also made chili for dinner last night because I’d started associating chili with that week. It was the first thing I made when I got power back. I’d run out of things I could quickly heat up, so I had to cook something when I got the chance, and this was the sort of thing that could be done fairly quickly or could simmer for a long time. That turned out to be the day I got power back for good, and that linked the chili to my power outage. Now I’ve associated it with something different.

Oddly enough, I don’t seem to have the same issue with the beef stew I lived on during the outage and reheated when I got power. Maybe because it doesn’t have such a distinctive flavor or because it’s something I have frequently while the chili is a relatively new recipe and I don’t yet have other memories built around it.

Anyway, maybe I should add more food to my books since it does link so strongly to emotions. I wonder what things my characters might avoid eating because the last time they ate it something bad happened, and now that flavor is what that negative emotion tastes like.

One Response to “The Taste of Memories”

  1. Caroline

    Oh yes! I once got a terrible migraine right after I had tried a new recipe for the first time, and I had to throw the rest of it away. Jicama still makes me think of that, though it had nothing to do with me throwing up after eating it. I just can’t get my head past it, though it was probably 15 years ago.

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