Memories: Key ingredients in happy holiday repast

Memories: Key ingredients in happy holiday repast

By K. C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE—Tired of the same old holiday fare? Instead of turkey you could serve roast suckling pig, polenta, anise-pear cranberry sauce and top it off with a caramel almond tart, but you’d be missing a key ingredient—memories.

“When you eat the same thing over and over again, there’s a sense that you’re in the same place again—a time out of time,” says David E. Sutton, a sociocultural anthropologist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“You remember variations on the familiar theme, but it’s the fact that it’s familiar that makes it memorable. The key element of a food holiday like Thanksgiving is that the meals are unvarying.”

Sutton, who last year published Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory, believes that meals—particularly ritual meals—act as warehouses of experiences.

“Taste and smell have strong evocative powers,” Sutton says. “With taste and smell, you don’t just smell a memory—you re-experience it.”

The reason, he says, lies in our neurophysiological makeup.

“We have an elaborate system of categorizing something like color, so when asked to recall a color, we draw on hue, intensity, the relation to other colors and so on,” Sutton says.

“Our categories for taste and smell, on the other hand, are very limited—usually hinging on ‘good’ or ‘bad’—so we tend to fill in with the things that surround them. This brings up a flood of memories of all the things that were going on when we first experienced the tastes and smells.”

The Greeks have a word for this, says Sutton, whose book draws extensively on field work he did on the Greek island of Kalymnos in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea.

“They call it ‘synthesia’—the recognition that one sense reinforces another,” he notes. “It’s what allows them to say, ‘Listen to that smell.’”

Greeks value sensory experiences in all parts of their lives, Sutton says.

“It’s a common sight to see a man on a bus smelling a flower, and Greek men can spend hours sitting around coffee shops discussing coffee as if it were art. Even Greek religious practices, with the incense, the liturgies, the ritual communion, all add up to a very sensory experience. We don’t see this in the United States because of our history of Protestantism and its emphasis on asceticism.”

While the scent of stuffing and the pucker of pickle relish can take us back to dining rooms that may no longer exist, those traditional foods pack another kind of punch.

“The process of cooking itself involves the transfer of practical knowledge from one generation to another,” Sutton says.

“The United States, with its emphasis on the new—new recipes, new techniques, new cookware, even new restaurants—is losing this knowledge. Bread machines are a prime example. Now to make bread, you just flip a switch and punch some buttons. The knowledge of how to use your hands to make bread has been shifted to a machine.”

The idea that you learn to cook from books and classes rather than by standing in a kitchen watching your mom or granny prepare her specialty is part and parcel of a larger shift in attitude.

“Our parents and grandparents no longer hold the key to our success because they can no longer teach us what we need to know,” he says.

But Sutton sees signs that this shift may be shifting again.

Noting the uptick in nostalgia shown by interest in everything from old-style cookbooks to farm-based vacations, he says, “There’s a real attempt in this country to try to get back in touch with the kinds of things we’ve destroyed with modernity.”

Roast turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, anybody?

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