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Food and Memory During the Holidays

Just Like Mom Used to Make!

Food can trigger some powerful memories. “Food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect,” says professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Susan Whitborne,

It is often magical how we can recall experiences that were created while enjoying certain foods. When I was a little girl, the smell of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove and sugar would fill the house when my mother would make her delicious spiced apple cider. She would serve it in oversized ceramic mugs and add a stick of cinnamon to use as a stir stick. To this day, that scent can take me back to our little house in Portland, Maine, where I grew up. It was almost always snowing outside and we would cuddle under a blanket to watch holiday movies together. Priceless memories. The physical act of enjoying the food itself most likely lasts only minutes, but the memory linked to that food experience can last a lifetime.

The Holidays Are Upon Us!

What foods trigger happy holiday childhood memories for you? Why not recreate those and keep them alive as a family tradition during the holidays? It’s a great and meaningful way to share stories with children and grandchildren about what makes that particular dish, beverage or dessert meaningful to you. Every time I would serve spiced apple cider, my daughter would grin and comment that it was just like her Nana used to make.

“Food memories feel so nostalgic because there’s all this context of when you were preparing or eating this food, so the food becomes almost symbolic of other meaning,” Whitbourne says. “A lot of our memories as children, it’s not so much the apple pie, for example, but the whole experience of being a family, being nourished, and that acquires a lot of symbolism apart from the sensory quality.”

Psychologists who study how the way the brain works say the hippocampus works closely with parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion and smell. They say this could be another reason why food memories are so evocative. By combining the psychological need for food and the related emotions and senses, the brain gets active in storing and bringing forth these memories.

Cooking and Baking Can Be Used for Self-Expression

If you are feeling creative, you can take a family recipe and add a dash of originality to it to make it yours. My mother used to add walnuts, raisins and apples to my grandmother’s traditional cinnamon roll recipe. “It’s hard to go wrong with great ingredients!” she would say. Baking has the benefit of allowing creative expression. There’s a lot of literature about the connection between creative expression and overall wellbeing. Whether it’s painting or it’s making music [or baking], there is a stress relief that people get from having some kind of an outlet and a way to express themselves.”

So use food as a way to keep traditions alive, trigger happy memories and even create new traditions with family and friends. It’s a lovely way to connect with others and spread some holiday cheer!