Friday, February 25, 2011
The Emotional Pipeline of Food
Beyond the palliative effect food seems to have on most of us, the familiar tastes and scents of our childhood foods contain vivid memories and give us easy access to our emotional wiring. Jay’s potato chips will always make me think of my mother. Her favored snacks have always come from the salty-crunchy food group: sweets, she can take them or leave them, but popcorn, tortilla chips, corn chips and, most of all, potato chips make her feel instantly better. Potato chips bring to mind greasy paper plates and summertime, comfort and frustration fused together.
Catching a whiff of Hershey’s chocolate syrup instantly reminds me of my father, of drunkenly constructed sundaes at the kitchen table, of richness and bitterness swirled together. I remember the cans of Hershey’s syrup with triangles punctured into the lid, chocolate globs dried on top, always in our fridge. My father sought out sweet flavors like it was a genetic imperative: he had no interest in my mother’s bags of crunchy things, but if there was cake or brownies or ice cream in the house, he couldn’t help but devour the whole thing like a tornado. Whereas my mother has that enviable ability to eat ten potato chips and call it a day, my father was voracious in all matters and had no inner-mechanism for quitting once he started doing whatever it was that made him feel better. So when I smell Hershey’s syrup, I also think of desperation.
The influence of a Jewish grandmother who showered her family with love and home cooked meals probably cemented this merging of food and emotions together for me. Nothing will ever compare in quality to even her simplest grilled cheese sandwiches. I cannot think of my grandmother and not associate her with the smell of sizzling potatoes in vegetable oil, the intoxicating steam of matzo ball soup, perfectly crispy-and-chewy ruggelah, It is hard to think of her and not remember the comforting smells of her kitchen, of sitting at the kitchen table with my feet wrapped behind the chair legs, grating potatoes and onions, cracking eggs into flour and sugar. Her kitchen was a place to escape, a place where I was not simply accepted but adored. Even though her hands prepared it, her food was imbued somehow with my feelings toward her and my sweet grandfather: uncomplicated love and devotion, bites of gratitude and contentment that warmed me from a hollow place in my belly like a hot potato wrapped in foil. It’s no surprise that I have her photo up on my kitchen wall, along with her grater, rolling pin with the chipping red handles and ceramic set of containers. I’m not much of a collector of mementos, but one room in my house is different. Food is full of memories and emotions at times: my kitchen reflects that.
Not unexpectedly, when I became a vegetarian and later a vegan, I felt that schism from my past pretty profoundly. It was one thing to distance myself from unhappy times associated with food – I am glad to never eat a lamb chop again for many noble reasons, but self-centeredly, I’m glad because they remind me of Sundays, which remind me of when my father was home from work, which reminds me of tension, fights and tires peeling out of our driveway - but going vegetarian meant separating from comforting, warm memories as well. It meant saying goodbye to my grandmother’s Jell-O, always reliably ready for my brother and me. It was just Jell-O, a powder bought in a box, totally artificial but it was perfect because it was from my grandmother. The first thing we would do when we went to her condo was open her fridge and grab our cups of Jell-O: consistency, care and blessed predictability could be found in that wobbly gelatin. Giving up meat meant no more corned beef and meltingly tender potatoes that only my grandmother could make. Chicken noodle soup, kishke, raspberry jam dot cookies: gone, gone, gone.
I recognize missing my grandmother and the emotional connection with her is more significant than missing the specific foods she made us, though I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss that for a time, too. What she cooked for us felt sublime because it seemed to be infused with her spirit and the awareness that when I was eating it, I was happy: I was safe, away from my worries and I was with her.
I think we do a disservice to people struggling in their transition to veganism when we downplay or overlook how emotional food memories imprint themselves upon us and our psyches. I consider becoming a vegetarian at fifteen the best decision I ever made because it paved the way for so many other blessings in my life, but I have to acknowledge that there was a loss there, too. Just as giving birth to my son, the light of my life, was an incredible gift that I cannot overstate, there was a loss with it, too, of independence, of the freedoms I enjoyed before he come into my life. This is not to say that I ever for a moment regret having him but that things are not always so relentlessly upbeat.
Someone’s memory of fried chicken might be deeply intertwined with childhood and carefree summers at her grandparent’s farm. Another person might associate hamburgers and milkshakes with a particular restaurant, just him and his dad once a week, or, to someone else, chicken noodle soup with Ginger Ale was something her mother always gave her when she was home from school with a fever. Chicken salad sandwiches aren’t just chicken salad sandwiches: they are picnics with your cousins, a chance to see your parents smiling and turn your world upside-down by rolling down the hill. Corned beef sandwiches with mustard on rye are you and your papa sitting side by side at the lunch counter, him taking your cole slaw and giving you his potato chips, the way his breath always sounded, steady like an engine. Little Debbie snack cakes were you and your best friend, hiding out in your tree house every day that July: not as decadent as Hostess, but perfect for what they were because they were the food that transformed you into superheroes. When we eat these foods, we not only revisit familiar tastes that comfort us because we recognize them, we revisit familiar feelings that comfort us because of our memories.
A way out of the mental trap that our past is our destiny is to recreate the tastes and flavors you grew up loving. We are so fortunate to be living at a time that this is possible. There is a cookbook for every taste, from raw salads to comfort foods, as well as all manner of ethnic cookbooks within the vegan sphere. A trip to a well-stocked library is a great starting point. Asking an herbivore if he has any particular recipes will probably result in you getting a dozen variations – we vegans love to be helpful! – and I think that with an open mind, patience and a willingness to experiment, you could find a good staple of recipes that fulfill what you’ve been missing. Plus, there’s everything from egg-free mayonnaise to dairy-free melty cheese now to help you on your way, products not necessarily created for the vegan market but for people who have to cut down on animal products for health reasons. These are designed to taste as close as possible to what you grew up eating.
The first time I had matzo ball soup again after a twenty-year embargo, it was a revelation, like all those years melted away and I was with my grandmother again, sitting in her little yellow kitchen. The broth didn’t come from chickens and the matzo balls didn’t have eggs but that didn’t create any barrier to my grandmother. That place in my belly, no longer hollow but missing her sweet spirit, filled again, not with food so much as with her particular smile, voice, vibrant energy. I feel the same way when I use her rolling pin, creating things that nurture and nourish my family, make them smile. I hope that my son will grow up to continue the tradition, also feeding the people he loves delicious, nourishing, peaceful food.
Perhaps what is most important is that if we are craving the feeling of nurturance of long ago foods, we look inside and ask how we can create that sense in a more lasting, rooted way in ourselves beyond food. Veganism shouldn't be a barrier. When we think that we’re hungry for a specific thing – an omelet, a French dip sandwich, whatever - often we’re hungry for feelings and a time in our past. Can we cultivate an inner-source of nurturance, love and joyfulness that meets our deeper needs? If we can’t access that, nothing will fill ever us up.