Gathering Food Memories

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - September 24, 2008
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I bought some fresh raspberries the other day, and after the first bite of a plump, surprisingly sweet berry, I was immediately transported back to Scotland and the raspberries I picked with my friends when we were children. Their tiny, prickly thorns were no deterrent to our expert little fingers as we filled straw baskets by the pound and then greedily devoured them.

As I stood in our Honolulu kitchen, bowl of raspberries in one hand, spoon in the other, I found it hard to tear myself from the daydream of being 12 years old and eating fresh food every day.

There’s no underestimating the power of a food memory. Smell is the most powerful of all our senses (we have four genes for vision and more than 10,000 for scent), and just the hint of a sweet tangerine or the aroma of a fresh roasting chicken is enough to send most of us meandering through childhood again.

I believe that nourishment from food that’s lovingly cooked (whether it’s picked from a bush or bought at the supermarket) goes beyond feeding a hungry body, and it struck me, while standing there, raspberries still in hand, that while parents all over the country are frantically searching for ways to spend “quality time” with their kids, maybe they’re missing an obvious place. Well-meaning moms and dads march kids off to play dates or to pay-by-the-hour for activity centers, scramble for tickets to expensive shows or schedule every moment of free time. But maybe the easiest place to spend quality time isn’t at an event at all, but rather in the kitchen.

I noticed a few weeks ago that our 5-year-old son, Max, who is reluctant to talk about anything that happens in kindergarten, magically begins to reveal moments of his day as soon as we start to bake or prepare dinner together. He might do nothing more than help put out place mats or napkins, but there’s a feeling of importance and family involvement when he works in the kitchen that seems to give him the confidence to talk about his day and the things that have happened, both good and bad.

Among the busy work of filling water glasses and trying to lay silverware in the right direction, there’s a lot of conversation. It’s as if our kitchen is a safe place held together by smells and activity and a sense of purpose.

The same thing happens when we bake - both boys (Finn is 3) pull their chairs up to the kitchen counter and, as they’re spilling flour and cracking eggs, they chatter endlessly about everything from with whom we’ll share our cookies to what they want to be when they grow up. Maybe it’s because they know that I’m not going to answer the phone with flour on my hands, or rush off to finish an article in the middle of making spaghetti sauce, or maybe it’s more than that. Maybe they’re busy gathering food memories of their own.

The other afternoon, after we’d made soup and pizza dough and baked two batches of cookies, our friend arrived.

“It smells like love in here,” she said as she walked into the kitchen.

That’s one smell I hope the boys remember.

Happy eating!

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