childhood sweets

Eating the Past – Exploring the links between food and memory

I can smell violets from the next room. One whiff of their heady floral scent and I’m back in my Nan’s living room circa 1986. Sucking on Palma Violets, while Perry Mason gets busy clearing a hapless but innocent defendant in court. All is well with the world.

Good or bad, food memories are here to stay

Palma Violets aren’t the only treat that I associate with my Nan. The whitest of white milk loaf slathered with margarine, (it was the 1980’s – no high-fat butter here) fighting over who got the crunchy nut cornflakes in the mini cereal multipack, toasting jelly tots over a candle after the Christingle service. Cherry lips, floral gums, liquorice Imps – the list goes on.

I seem incredibly attached to the food memories of my life. A recent behind the scenes trip to a microbrewery instantly conjured up thoughts of the sticky malt syrup that mum fed us when we were poorly. My lasting memories of heart transplant recovery will be forever linked to the spicy Indian dishes delivered at a time when high doses of medication made everything taste like plastic.

The science

While I may be moderately food obsessed, I’m not the only to see a strong link between memory and food. In his book ‘The Omnivorous Mind‘ John Allen explains that the hippocampus (responsible for creating our long-term memories) has close connections to the sections of the brain related to emotion and smell. Additionally, it has “direct links to the digestive system…and the hormones that regulate appetite, digestion and eating behaviour also have receptors in the hippocampus.” He goes on to say “Finding food is so important to survival that it is clear that the hippocampus is primed to form memories about and around food.”

Food and culture

This powerful connection leads in part to the role that food can play in a cultural setting. As we move around the world we bring with us the recipes that form part of our roots, the dishes that point to the very heart of who we are. From simple fish and chips to trendy hummus and halloumi – British food would not be the same without this phenomenon. For that, I am very thankful.

A recipe to share

I am going to close this article by returning to my Nan. Sadly no longer with us, Beryl Constance Reed would have been celebrating her 96th birthday on the 9th of January. Beryl was born six years before full female suffrage and keen to encourage her daughters and granddaughters to vote. It’s a shame she isn’t here to celebrate the six 2018 anniversaries marked by the Vote 100 project. She also imbued us with a love of food and left me with a deep-rooted passion for words and storytelling. So, as a tribute to Nans everywhere, here is my version of her gingerbread cake. I hope that you enjoy making it as much as I do.

Ingredients

225g of plain flour

A pinch of salt

2 tablespoons of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1/2 a teaspoon of ground mace

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

50g of soft brown sugar

100g of butter

225g of golden syrup

150 ml milk

2 medium eggs, beaten

4 – 5 balls of preserved stem ginger, roughly chopped.

Method

Heat your oven to 150ºC/Gas Mark 2.

Grease an 18 cm square cake tin.

In a large mixing bowl sieve together the flour, salt, ginger, bicarbonate of soda and spices. Stir in the soft brown sugar and set the dry ingredients to one side.

Melt the butter and golden syrup over a low heat, taking care not to burn the syrup. Once melted, beat in the milk and leave to cool. Add the beaten eggs and chopped stem ginger.

Pour the syrup mixture in with the dry ingredients and stir well.

Pour the cake batter into your prepared tin and bake for about 1¼ hours.

Do you have a favourite food memory that you would like to share? Tell me all about it in the comments section.

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