The rather ghoulish tradition of the the ‘last meal’ on Death Row was the inspiration for Melanie Dunea’s 2007 book The Last Supper, where she asked celebrity chefs about what they would choose as their final repast.
The first instinct of many of the chefs was to impress, spouting a collection of pricey, luxurious ingredients prepare with complex cooking methods into dishes with exotic titles. However, more interesting was the reaction of a few other chefs who answered, one imagines, more honestly, with menus inspired by memories.
One chef expressed a desire for his mother’s gravy to be the last thing he would taste. Another ‘envisions a picturesque white house on a farm, big sky, blueberries and a slow-cooked, cumin-rubbed, citrus-y pig, and his father making ice cream’ .
The chef’s desire to taste his mother’s gravy before he departed the earth was a clear need for comfort, a comfort he imagined would be received through tasting something that had such positive connotations for him, a reminder of his mother and his childhood. A positive memory through the sense of taste, through food.
The memory of a father making ice cream is again a memory of comfort associated with food and the senses. Even the thought of tasting the ice cream made the man be once again the boy on a farm watching his father making it. The clear images he conjures up displays the strong link between food and memory.
Various autobiographical books have been written with the theme of food as a focal point throughout the lives of the authors. In The Gastronomical Me MFK Fisher puts her whole life experience in culinary perspective. Each milestone and important episode in her life is depicted through a gastronomical experience.
So Fisher can recall when she first began to appreciate food, when her elderly grandmother took in a housekeeper who was a talented cook, creating new and exciting dishes for the family. The story of her life is told through culinary associations: for instance, a chapter is dedicated to her first school dance, yet the focus of the story centres on her first experience of tasting a raw oyster, which gives the chapter its name.
Anthony Bourdain, chef and author of Kitchen Confidential, also uses food to tell his story. He recalls how he understood food was something wonderful from an early childhood trip to France. He recounts tasting Vichyssoise for the first time and describes it as the first food he’d really noticed as a ten-year-old kid. The fact that the soup was cold was completely new to him and he looked upon it as a discovery of amazing culinary proportions.
While on the same trip, Bourdain, like Fisher, vividly remembers his first oyster and being utterly transfixed by this ‘glistening almost sexual looking object’. He was on a fishing boat with his family and they were each asked if they would like a fresh oyster from the water; he describes his fearless desire to be the first to try it as ‘proudest moment of his young life’.
He also recollects, his parents pulling up outside La Pyramid, in Vienne, run by the famous and feared Fernand Point, on the same trip. They abandoned him and his brother leaving them a stash of Tintin books as a babysitter while they rushed in to dine. Immediately the young Bourdain’s brain set to work wondering what could possibly be contained within these walls. It is to such childhood memories that he attributes his desire to cook and become involved with food, eventually becoming the successful chef he was for 25 years in Brasserie Les Halles, New York.
The importance of memory for human beings is an invaluable tool which intertwines all the experiences of a lifetime and puts all new and future memories in context and perspective. The intrinsic connection of memory to our senses makes it all the more powerful as our senses are what in essence make us experience feelings and reactions towards people and things and situations in our lives. What each of the above examples has depicted is that our early memories of eating can influence us throughout our lives.
Sometimes, in fact, we can be returned vividly to a moment in our forgotten past through our sense of taste. The taste of warm tea mingling with madeline crumbs in his mouth, returns Proust to a bygone moment of his life, where his aunt Léonie shared the ‘shell shaped biscuits’ with her nephew on Sunday mornings during his youth in Combray. Proust had completely lapsed the memory before revisiting the sensory moment. “The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea”.
A childhood memory of a new and unusual taste such as Fisher’s incident of tasting the oyster for the first time at a school dance and being unsure how to eat it, or Bourdain’s delight at eating soup only to discover it to be cold yet delicious, is so powerful it can last a lifetime and the mouth’s memory of the taste will last a lifetime. Even when a memory is forgotten, if it were powerful enough at one time, taste can trigger it again in the future. It is an overwhelming concept, an ingenious trick by mother nature, to allow pleasant moments never be forgotten.
Memory as it is associated with food through the senses is personal to all humans with their senses intact. Everyone has a clear memory of trying a new taste or tasting something disgusting and spitting it out. We go about our lives trying and tasting new things and creating new memories daily. The human experience is lived and remembered through the senses, the most powerful tool we have at our disposal.