I’ll never forget that macaroni and cheese — decadently creamy sauce, pasta with just a hint of resistance to the tooth, and best of all, a baked casserole generously flecked with crispy breadcrumbs turned deep gold in the oven.
It was my mom’s mac and cheese, the backdrop for a wealth of childhood memories.
We don’t make it exactly like that at home anymore, because my husband’s version was different. Eventually — after much trial and error — we merged the two recipes to create a new entity, specific to our new family.
It seemed the most appropriate way to honor both traditions, both sets of associated memories.
Few things can elicit the deeply intense memories that certain foods can evoke. (I’d argue music is on the shortlist as well.)
Each of our primary senses is involved when we experience a meal — sight, smell, hearing, touch, and of course, taste. Therefore, a context is formed whenever we eat, based not only on the food but on our surroundings as well.
Scientific evidence illustrates how food impacts memory. The hippocampus, which is critical for memory, connects to the parts of the brain impacting smell and emotion. It also connects to the digestive system. Food is critical to our survival, so it makes sense that the hippocampus would form strong memories relating to food.
Sometimes, the memories induced by a specific meal don’t have much to do with the food at all.
Little Meatballs, Grandma and Grandpa’s Apartment, Athens, Ohio
The meatballs were one of the only things my sister would eat when we were kids. It was a running joke in our family that whoever she married had better like little meatballs and mac and cheese.
This meal usually involved a side of lima beans and a small juice glass filled with whole milk, which we never drank at home.
Grandma and Grandpa’s moved in down the street from us after Grandpa’s stroke because my grandmother couldn’t drive. Their dining set had found a place in our house, just up the hill, because it was too substantial for their tiny apartment. We ate dinner at a round card table covered with a cheerful table cloth.
Grandma’s hair, usually tucked neatly into a roll in the back, was a bit more disheveled in those days, as the dark shadow of Alzheimer’s began to eclipse her daily existence.
Breakfast Scrambler with Black Bean Salsa, Casa Nueva, Athens, Ohio
The best education I ever got paid to acquire. I was a co-owner of this worker-owned restaurant, and also president of the board of directors. I sat in the Cantina, working on our annual business plan, chain-smoking and mainlining fair-trade coffee for hours on end.
I was in my mid-20s and still in college. The restaurant and nightclub were far more interesting to me than taking classes, so I’d asserted my independence and dropped down to part-time for my last couple of years. I learned to love cooking, kitchens, and running a business — skills that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Venison Medallions with Wild Huckleberry Sauce, Everest, Chicago, Illinois
I’d just moved to the big city and had set aside money for this occasion when my friend would be visiting and wanted to go somewhere fancy. I think my portion of this meal cost close to $300, almost 20 years ago, which was ridiculously extravagant considering I didn’t have a job yet and had already signed a lease on an apartment.
But fancy it was — it was a non-smoking restaurant so they set up a private smoking room for us, with a view of the skyline and fresh-cut flowers. They would invite us to adjourn there between courses and I felt like Cinderella at the ball.
I’d taken the train downtown to the restaurant, wearing a long, velvet spaghetti-strap dress. Fresh off the small-town express, I oozed naiveté, and for the first few months, I was a magnet for bums and creeps of all types.
A young man entered the train, sat down next to me, opened his newspaper, and proceeded to start rubbing my upper thigh. I told him to stop. “No hablo ingles,” he responded. I told him if he didn’t stop I was going to cut off his f@#!-ing hand and feed it to him.
He promptly got up and moved to the next car. I can only imagine he thought I was completely insane. I took a cab home after dinner.
Upside-Down Frozen Pizza, 16th Street Loft, Chicago, Illinois
The first place my husband and I ever lived together, taking our relationship to the next level after seven years together. I remember the orange paper lanterns from Ikea hanging upside down over the kitchen counter, the creamy peanut butter-colored walls, the cheap white cupboards. The disco ball suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the raw, open space. The rough bricks covered hastily with white paint. That Connie’s Pizza delivery box we couldn’t get rid of because the cats liked to sit in it.
Our friend was laughing at me because I really did bake a frozen pizza upside down. He thought it was hilarious that I used to work in restaurants and apparently had yet to master frozen pizza.
The list could go on forever — my mom’s spaghetti sauce, simmering on the stove. The halibut at Michael Symon’s Lola, Cleveland, Ohio, the first time I felt like my dinner was actually so good it made me stoned. The aged ribeye at Red the Steakhouse, back when we used to treat ourselves to a steak once a year for my husband’s birthday. The first dinner I cooked in our new home.
Someday I’ll thoroughly document as many of these memories as I can. They’re significant moments, but also just blips in time, enhanced by the foods we ate. Our senses were stimulated, creating pathways in our minds that would stand the test of time.
What memories come to mind when you think of certain foods? Feel free to leave a comment! Let’s get a discussion going!