THE FOODIE FILES: What Makes a Food Memory?

By on May 31, 2017

When tastes and emotions tangle to create a lasting impression on the brain.

The author and her companion work their way through French bistro classics: steak tartar, ham and lentils. (Photo: Annie Fenn)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – What makes a meal memorable? Is it the flavor of the food? The pairing of drink? The people you’re with? The place? Why do some meals, even though delicious in every way, become immediately forgettable, while others are embedded in our memory banks forever?

Megan Gallagher, director of Jackson Hole Food and Wine, got me thinking about food memories when she asked me to share a story during the upcoming Big Wines, Small Plates event. Part of the new nonprofit’s inaugural festival in June, this wine tasting luncheon will feature food and wine enthusiasts talking about memorable meals. And to make it an evocative trip down memory lane, the chefs will create small plates and wine pairings based on the memories.

“Think of a time when the food and wine made sense to you,” Gallagher said. “An ‘Aha’ moment, if you will.”

Just like all of you, I’ve had my share of memorable meals. But the one that immediately jumped from the recesses of my brain was a very old memory from a time when I knew nothing about food or wine.

It was when I had my first legal drink. I can see my 16-year-old self now: a scrawny kid with frizzy hair and a poor command of the Spanish language, trying to act nonchalant as I sidled up to the bar.

Steak and Frites at Le Relais de L’Entrecote. (Photo: Annie Fenn)

I had never really been anywhere outside my small upstate New York town before I traveled to Spain as an exchange student the summer I turned 16. Back then I had a palate that was as small and narrow as the town I grew up in. Weighing just less than 100 pounds, I didn’t eat much. I lived on pasta without sauce, ramen noodle soup made without the spice packet, and spoonfuls of Jif that I dipped in sugar. I had never tasted an avocado or eaten a raw tomato.

As soon as I arrived at my host family’s home, in a mountainous town outside of Leon, even smaller than the one I had come from, my Spanish siblings took me to the local bar. Seeing that I was at a loss for words when the bartender approached, my sister Asunción ordered for me: a vino tinto, the ubiquitous cheap table wine of Spain. It came in a short tumbler topped with a small plate of food.

I know now, but did not know then, that it is customary in Spain to have a small plate of food, a tapa, served with a drink. Tapa means lid, and that’s exactly how the bartender hands it to you balanced atop your drink. This tapa happened to be a classic—a date stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon. For a picky eater from upstate New York, this was the most exotic food I had ever seen. If my siblings hadn’t been watching, I probably wouldn’t have eaten it. It helped that I was starving and it smelled like bacon.

Do you remember your first legal drink? (Photo: Annie Fenn)

I took a small bite followed by a swig of wine. Another bite, another swig. Little did I know my life was pretty much changed forever. The world of food and wine had just opened up to me. Two months later, when I returned from Spain, I taught myself to cook and have been cooking (and enjoying wine) ever since.

I’m not sure if that wine would make me swoon now like it did then. But I remember what it was like to wash down that chewy morsel of date with the earthy wine. And I’ll never forget how it made me feel: Surprised, delighted and relieved;—after all, I had no idea what was stuffed inside that date—proud of myself for taking the plunge; and a little light-headed from the wine. Suddenly, I was a tiny bit less shy and more grown-up.

Fast forward a few dozen years and I am sitting in a Paris café with my 16-year-old son. We have eight unstructured days and nights strewn in front of us like a long summer. Our only plan is to eat our way through as many classic French bistro dishes as possible. Nick chooses steak tartar with pommes frites. I order white asparagus drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette, sole Meniere, and a glass of Sancerre.

“Hey Mom, can I order a beer?”

I thought back to my first legal drink in that dim Spanish bar circa 1980-something. I remember the dank smell of the bar mingled with the intoxicating aroma of the bacon-wrapped date. And I thought of how awesome it would be to wash down your first authentic French meal with a cold beer. Of course I said yes.

Buckwheat galettes at Breizh Cafe, rumored to have the best crépes in Paris. (Photo: Annie Fenn)

Will Nick remember that meal for the rest of his life? Maybe yes, maybe no. (We had a lot of great meals in Paris!) Chances are he’s more likely to remember how he felt ordering that first beer. How the waiter expertly guided him to a proper choice. How he felt when his food arrived—the chilled steak tartar and the hot, salty pommes frites, the beer ceremoniously plopped down in front of him. And how it all smelled.

Food memories may be more about emotions than food. When a meal conjures strong feelings, good or bad, the details are stored in the deep emotional centers of the brain, like the hippocampus, rather than the more cerebral frontal cortex. We learn to experience food through the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. But flavor is how we remember it.

Flavor is like a snapshot in your mind. It is so complex that the brain perceives it like a human face. Sensory data from taste intertwines with smell and emotion to create a food memory. Aromas and emotions can evoke a food memory buried decades ago in the brain. It’s like remembering someone’s face but not their name. For me, chorizo stuffed dates wrapped in bacon with red wine don’t just make me think about being in Spain. They remind me of how I felt when I was there.

At the risk of spilling the beans about my food and wine pairing memory for the Big Wines, Small Plates event, all I can say is that it involves my first trip to France and foie gras. I hope you will join me at this, or one of the other Jackson Hole Food and Wine events on June 22, 23, and 24. Proceeds from all events benefit Hole Food Rescue and the Central Wyoming College culinary program. Over at jacksonholefoodie.com, I’ll be giving away one ticket to Big Wines, Small Plates by asking readers to share their own food memories. And I’ll be sharing a recipe for buckwheat galettes from Nick’s and my favorite little créperie in Paris.

To learn more about Jackson Hole Food and Wine, and to purchase tickets to Big Wines, Small Plates, check jhfoodandwine.com. PJH

Annie Fenn is physician with a passion for food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Current mission: spreading the word about how to cook and eat to prevent dementia. Find recipes for longevity at brainworkskitchen.com and more food and stories at jacksonholefoodie.com.

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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