Food, Place, Memory

Originally posted at Kitchen Dancing on July 27th, 2007. View the original post here.

My friend Abby Dallmann recently returned for a brief visit in the middle of a two year stint working and living in Hungary. My wife (and co-author of this blog), Erica lived in Hungary for a year when she was sixteen, and so the two of them swapped stories and compared notes about the area. When Erica was there, living in a small town called Szeged, it was nearly impossible to find a person who spoke English, or find many foods commonly found in America.

In contrast, Abby reported that she and her family were having a hard time practicing their Hungarian (a notoriously difficult language to master) because so many people speak English. Abby is also living in Budapest amongst a fairly large diplomatic and expatriate crowd. She said that she can find most any American food from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Doritos, but that it usually involves a long drive out to a oversized supermarket (often a chain which has moved in from Germany or other near-by countries).

Abby told us that the only reason she really feels compelled to track down such items is for her kids. She remarked on the profound way that kids associate food with place. Her kids are both pretty young, first grade and preschool age. For the most part they have been handling this adventure with aplomb, but when they get lonely for home it is often in the form of a desire for some familiar food. This got me thinking about the unique intersection of food, place, and memory.

Photo by John ReissEach year when I was growing up my family always looked forward to the Ithaca festival, a long weekend of arts, crafts, music, performances, and exhibits by numerous local community organizations and businesses from around the area. The festival took over a large portion of downtown and spread through a local park on the edge of Cayuga lake. It was the kind of place where, as kids, our parents gave us the freedom to just run and play. It really was a magical showcase of the caring, diversity, and arts that make Ithaca such a great place to live.

However, to this day my most vivid memories of that festival are the food vendors – or more specifically the smells of the food vendors. This was not your normal festival or fairground food. There were tandori places, next to Mexican booths, behind falafal joints and pizza eateries, there were seafood shacks and sandwich carts saddled up next to lo mein vendors and Cajun cuisine. And of course there were a few places serving fried dough, french-fries, and cotton-candy.

As I have traveled and lived in more and more places I am beginning to find that this sort of festival is not entirely unique to Ithaca, and occasionally I will turn a corner towards the food carts at a festival or event and the scents of a world’s foods combined will strike me with the force of memory, the power of all the experiences I have had running along the shores of Cayuga lake, and the longing and desire that only the thought of home can produce. That scent brings me back to a time and place so powerfully that I still pause and just soak it all in.

This experience is only amplified when you share it with someone else. My wife and I have a catalogue of scents that bring us back to wonderful points in our relationship. The garlicky greasy smell first meal I cooked for her, the sweet almost smoky smell of a tomato stems, the smell of fresh papaya with a bit of lime squeezed on top.

What scents set you off? What food memories make you catch your breath and inhale deeply? What are the places that smell like home to you?


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