Do you ever take a moment to stop and smell the memories? My
tomato plants are covered in tomatoes so heavy they tipped the trellis over this
morning. As I was setting them back up surrounded by the smell of the plants, I
was reminded of gardening with my grandmother when I was small. There’s a
strong connection between smell and memory. There’s a strong connection between
memory and comfort. And there’s a strong connection between comfort and food.
Have you ever had a chance to stop and consider how smell
and memory influence your food choices? Most of us don’t even have time to stop
and smell the roses, much less the memories. But an awareness of our relationships
to smell memory can be helpful with compliance when we need to follow a
specific diet in order to be healthy.
A few years ago, a gluten-free bakery opened in my city. My
response upon first visiting it was to feel disappointment that there was no
yeasty smell in the air. For me, the joy of a bakery lies in the smells-yeast,
coffee, cinnamon. The visuals are great too, but while I might be hesitant to
eat an oddly shaped cut of meat or deformed looking vegetable, I’d never refuse
a misshapen cookie or a torn piece of bread.
Much of the joy and comfort of cooking come from familiar
aromas. The first time I cooked fresh green beans in my home, I remarked, “This
is how this house should smell.” The house is over 100 years old. Somehow, the
smell fit the hardwood floors, carved wood doors, transom windows, and 12-foot
ceilings. And I knew it.
When smell is a reminder of family, comfort, and tradition, it can be especially compelling. That’s because smell goes directly to an olfactory bulb that’s connected to the amygdala where emotional processing occurs. All of those warm feelings can end up being connected to related smells.
The idea of giving up a certain food may trigger a feeling
of loss or separation as if you’re giving up family or comfort. Knowing this up
front can help inform your choices and give you enough insight to recognize and
overcome emotional memory stumbling blocks.
And perhaps knowing this can help you process through a diagnosis of celiac disease, diabetes, IBS, or Crohn’s disease without feeling as though required dietary changes will be dire. You will quickly recognize that you can enjoy the warm memories associated with the scent of a cinnamon roll without actually eating one. This knowledge will increase your sense of power, confidence, and choice.
It may also mean you value your memories more because you take time to smell them.
Sometimes a new idea comes out of the mouth of babes, snakes, and scientists. A study published last week online in advance of the print edition in Oxford Academic Chemical Senses finds that smell may begin with the tongue rather than the brain. One of the study’s authors, Mehmet Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD, MPH, became intrigued with the idea when his adolescent son asked whether snakes stick their tongues out in order to smell.
A current model of taste and smell shows two genetically different receptor systems located in anatomically distinct locations that send signals to different targets. While the two are known to intertwine to form the perception of flavor, scientists thought that the first merger occurred in the insular cortex – a part of the cerebral cortex in the brain. The insulae are believed to play a role in functions that include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning and interpersonal experience.
The abstract of this new study states: “Here we report that olfactory receptors are functionally expressed in taste papillae…The results provide the first direct evidence of the presence of functional olfactory receptors in mammalian taste cells. Our results also demonstrate that the initial integration of gustatory and olfactory information may occur as early as the taste receptor cells.” (1) Other experiments confirm that smell and taste receptors may be found within the same cell.
There are 400 different types of functional human olfactory receptors and scientists do not know what molecules activate the vast majority of them. While fascinating, this study alone does not answer that question or have a practical application other than to advance knowledge that will lead to other studies.
That’s the beauty of science. It’s a living body of changing knowledge. One layer builds on another. The more we understand about how things work, the more options we have for enhancing our lives. It’s good to remind ourselves of that occasionally.
Believing science has become a battle cry among those who want to stand firm on what we currently know. There’s a danger in that because tomorrow we will know more and that may mean that what we know today is no longer supported by the evidence. It also makes science sound like a restrictive rule book. Who wants to learn a bunch of rules? Certainly not bright minds that can imagine big ideas.
Instead of believing science, I’d rather we love it! And while we’re loving it, let’s be curious. Curiosity leads to advancement. Questioning is good. Skepticism can play a valuable role. Allowing our understanding to shift and change does not threaten our way of life. It has the potential to vastly improve it.
But don’t take that from me, take it from the mouth of a scientist: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein.
Some of you are probably reading this just to see how really crazy I am. I get it. Your initial thought when hearing the word cook may be more along the lines of: time consuming drudgery, additional work, pots & pans to wash, a disaster waiting to happen, or too much trouble…blah! I’m with you. Those phrases don’t sound fun. So where is the fun to be found in cooking? Let’s explore the possibilities!
In addition to providing sustenance, cooking can lead to compliments, camaraderie, spoon licking, new creations, toys, play, shopping, new friends, and chances to learn about other cultures. Much more appealing terms to be sure, and really…is there anything better than licking the spoon?
My fun often begins before I ever reach the kitchen. I’ll grab a reusable shopping bag and walk to the local farmers’ market. If, like me, you enjoy fresh air, sunshine, walking, and the smell of seasonal flowers blooming, you’ll be having fun as soon as you hit the door.
Most farmers’ markets are filled with an assortment of brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are mouthwateringly appealing. Some also offer grass-fed meats. Others have live bands performing and sell handmade baskets, jewelry, soaps, and clothing. A morning of shopping and people watching often gives me enough funny stories to last all week. At the very least, I know I’m supporting the local economy and going home with beautiful, healthy ingredients.
Shopping at an outdoor market can add fun when you travel as well. I once drove through the North Island of New Zealand in an RV. Along the route were incredible outdoor markets full of kiwifruit, silverbeet, asparagus, and oranges. Not only were these items fresh, flavorful, and inexpensive, they provided a unique chance to meet people. On the edge of every town was an RV park with a community kitchen. The kitchens were stocked with pots and pans larger and more numerous than the RV kitchen could carry. They also sported industrial size sinks and running hot water for doing dishes.
These $15 per night RV parks also offered electrical hookups and large community bathrooms with showers. They were affordable and popular. That usually meant sharing the kitchen with several locals. There’s no better way to find out where the trout are biting, what kind of flies to use to catch them, and where you can buy the best flies. Even though I’m not a big one to chat with strangers, the common denominator of food made it easier to strike up a conversation.
Shopping and cooking in a foreign country can leave you with a rich cultural experience that you will never forget. One of my favorite things to do when I travel outside the US is to visit indigenous grocery stores. I notice the similarities to, and differences from, what I experience at home. Some European package design is totally charming making me want to buy products on which I can’t even read the labels.
In the same vein, I find it fun to visit the ethnic markets in my town. I recently tried Milk Cake upon the recommendation of the checkout girl at the Asian market. A combination of buffalo milk and sugar, this cake is moist and dense. While it didn’t turn out to be my favorite dessert ever, it provided a good deal of entertainment at a neighborhood dinner party when I took it in the original packaging.
Some of us could shop ’til we drop, but then we’d never get any food on the table. Perhaps it’s time to move on to the fun found IN the kitchen. For those of you who love gadgets, the kitchen can offer an endless supply of specialized toys. There are blenders, mixers, openers, graters, grinders, peelers, processors, choppers, skewers, colanders, sifters, tenderizers, muddlers, ballers, mortars and pestles, mandolins, juicers, whisks, knives, rolling pins, tongs, herb mills, thermometers, corkscrews, molds, cutters, stones, smokers, and special grapefruit knives. Available in electric and unplugged versions, many of these can be purchased in bright colors for an additional element of fun. If you love toys, you’ll love playing with them too. I’m ready to chop, puree, macerate, pound, slice, cream, cut-in, muddle, grind, juice, measure, smoke, mix and match. Whew! Recess was fun. Is it nap time yet?
Coming up with new flavor combinations or preparing familiar foods in an unfamiliar way offers entertainment for both your mind and your palette. My grandmother used to grow radishes in the garden. She would cut the sides part of the way through to form the petals of a radish rose. These roses formed a garnish on many of her salads. I don’t like the bitter-hot, biting taste of radishes, and I’ve never voluntarily used one in the kitchen…until last month.
Ben has been building greenhouses for an organic garden. One day he showed up with some arugula and some tender young radishes. Feeling appreciative of the gift, I wanted to eat the radishes rather than give them away. Since I knew I wasn’t fond of them raw, I decided to try a sauté. The result was a delicious change of pace. I quickly consumed two servings and thought of several variations I wanted to try. I requested more radishes from the garden.
The next bunch arrived with the most beautiful green tops. I decided to see if the greens are consumable. They are! Now I had another challenge – what to do with the greens. I don’t know about you, but I love learning and I love puzzles. I needed to learn more about the greens, and I had a chance to put together the pieces of a taste puzzle. I was excited to see what the resulting dish would be. Creating something new in the kitchen is supremely fun for me!
The only thing that makes creating something new in the kitchen more fun is to compete with my boys in a cooking challenge. The informal rules are that we will all cook the same main ingredient in any way we chose as long as we make the recipe up as we go. We gather in the kitchen and the chaos begins. We can all be quite competitive and we’re used to combining lively conversation with meal preparation. The atmosphere in the kitchen is light-hearted and electric.
Last Thanksgiving, James and I had a pie cook-off. Maybe it was supposed to be a piecrust cook-off, but it turned into a full-fledged competition. Luckily, James wanted to make whipped cream for his sweet potato pie. I say luckily because he makes the lightest, fluffiest whipped cream ever. He always puts the bowl and whisk in the freezer before he starts, and he always lets me taste test when he adds the sugar. Both of us won in the compliment department, but James’ pecan pie beat my parsnip pie as the favorite. That’s okay. Next time I’ll challenge with my lemon meringue pie. And who won was not as important as the camaraderie in kitchen. I think it’s safe to pronounce that all family fun should be topped with whipped cream!
Relaxed family time can provide many moments of fun in the kitchen. When the kids get excited because they get to ice the cupcakes and then lick the knife, when they jump up and down because you let them add the chocolate chips to the cookies, when your daughter’s friends want to eat at your house because you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, how can you not feel good about cooking?
I know that sometimes you’re too tired to cook. Don’t force yourself. Eat gluten-free cereal and milk or yogurt and fruit, or tuna straight from the package and a banana. Giving yourself a break when you really need it will leave you free to remember the fun of cooking. Forcing yourself to perform in the kitchen when your heart isn’t in it will leave you resentful and less likely to get back in there and have fun another day!
Just be careful not to fool yourself into thinking that you “can’t” cook, or it’s ALWAYS drudgery, or it HAS TO take way too much time. Sometimes it’s easier to say these things than to face our real feelings about food or to recognize that we miss the love we felt in our grandmother’s kitchen when we raided the cookie jar. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge that we feel pressured to DO so many things, we don’t relax enough to find the fun in the routine activities that fill our days. Please recognize that every time you stop yourself before you start, you may be missing out on a chance for a rewarding connection with yourself and with your family and where’s the fun in that?
Cooking engages all our senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. It can feed our intellectual curiosity, our desire to collect or create, our desire to make order from chaos, or our desire to get our hands dirty. Best of all, it offers many paths of connection to the earth, our communities, our friends, and our families. When it comes to cooking, the possibilities for fun that satisfies the body, mind, and soul are truly boundless.
Next up The Benefits of Cooking Part 3: The Fixin’ in which we’ll explore the skill sets we master when we cook. Don’t worry if you’re too busy having fun in the kitchen to read it immediately, you can always go to the archives and read it later.