Mornings are not easy in my house. Amidst the chaos of fighting for the bathroom, misplaced shoes and socks, and readying ourselves for the day ahead there is one that thing that brings everyone to a dead stop and allows us to pause and savor the moment.
That one thing is bacon.
As I stand in front of the oven and pull the tray of freshly baked bacon from the rack, I take bite. I am immediately transported to the kitchen of my childhood home in southern Ohio. My Grandma Mildred is standing next to the stove frying up big slabs of bacon in a cast iron skillet. She is wearing a blue and white checked gingham shirtdress and her hair is braided like Princess Leah’s, wound tightly on the sides of her head. The memories don’t stop there.
In that moment I see my parents in their youth sitting around the Formica kitchen table. I think about all the people from all over the world who have come and gone and enjoyed good food and conversation in that space. As Willow and Maren come cascading down the stairs shouting “You made bacon!” I am back in the present.
We all have food memories – both good and bad. As a kid growing up I ate so much canned tuna the mere sight of it in the grocery store prompts a visceral feeling every time I see that small can. According to John Allen, author of The Omnivorous Mind, “the taste, smell, and texture of food can trigger memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting. Food can prompt deeper memories of feelings and emotions, internal states of the mind and body.” We humans eat a wide array of plants and animals, but unlike other omnivores we eat with our minds as much as our stomachs.
As humans we have mostly hunted and gathered for our food. Agriculture – especially the kind that is practiced today is a relatively new invention in human history. As a result of food being difficult to obtain, evolution has seen to it that memories associated with food may be more privileged than others.
The hippocampus, which is found in both hemispheres of the brain, is critical for memory. It is especially important for forming long-term declarative memories—those that can be consciously recalled and help shape the autobiographies that we all carry around in our heads.
The hippocampus also has strong connections with parts of the brain that are important for emotion and for smell. British psychologist Charles Fernyhough explains that olfactory memory is really a combination of taste and smell. The tongue distinguishes only between sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami - or savory. Most of what we think of as taste is in fact smell. The mere whiff of Masala spice used in Indian Chai takes me to the farm in Navdanya, India. I feel grateful for a simple cup of tea. Finding food is so important to our survival as a species that it is clear that the hippocampus is primed to form memories about and around food.
Philosopher Julian Baggini writes that when we actually do taste or smell something from the past, we are revisiting an experience that memory has been unable to keep alive directly. The smell of your grandmother’s kitchen reassures you that your life is one with that of the child who once played in it.
Food also forms a powerful part of the emotional narrative of our lives which is, in many ways, more important than the historical one. A family friend once told me that speaking and cooking in German are ‘two things she couldn’t do without’. Émigrés will often adopt the language of their new country, and even start thinking in it, before they give up the food traditions of their homeland. This is not primarily about nostalgia, but preserving a link with where they came from, in order to keep a clear sense of who they still are.
We are fast approaching the one holiday in American culture that is most centered around food - Thanksgiving. It is a time when friends and family gather from far and wide. As we share food that is sometimes only prepared for this one day, the memories associated with that food are sure to flow.
This year StoryCorps, which is an American non-profit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives – is conducting the Great Thanksgiving Listen. Using the methods of anthropology – interviewing and listening and recording narratives - StoryCorps is asking young people to sit and talk and listen to their elders.
My freshman anthropology students and my own children will be taking part in this event. As my family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner, Willow and Maren will interview their grandparents and I am sure they will discover things about them I never knew. Everyone who conducts an interview will be able to upload their recordings to the StoryCorps archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
The great anthropologist, Margaret Mead said that her greatest fear was that as we drifted towards this blandly amorphous generic world not only would we see the entire range of the human imagination reduced to a narrower modality of thought, but that we would wake from a dream one day having forgotten there were even other possibilities. In one holiday weekend an entire generation of diverse American lives and experiences will be captured for future generations so that we can know the importance of different ways of doing and being.
And to think, all of this will happen over pie, and coffee, and bacon.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.