The Power of Food Memories in Identity Formation

We continue with our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” with this post from Gastronomy student Valencia Baker.  This series presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them.

Valencia_Image_BUBLOGFor several months now, I’ve been intrigued by the interconnections of memory, food, and identity. Identity making is a key point of interest for the socio-cultural anthropologist; those who use food as their primary mode of scholarship research would be amiss to overlook the power and significance that memories have on the construction of identity. Specifically, sense memories are an integral part of each and every one of our autobiographical recollections. It is a titanic understatement to say that we, as social researchers, leaders, and cultural curators, have so far undervalued the significance of the “lower tactile” senses and their value to our food experiences.

Aspects of our personal narratives are most intensely and emotionally recalled, and potentially re-learned, through memories associated with moments of taste, smell, sound, and touch. Our brain’s emotion centers are nearest to the brain’s taste and smell processing centers, so it is undeniable that our understandings of self are interrelated to these senses and that food experiences have great association with them. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust (1981) reflects that remembering is not just reserved for thinking about past visual moments, but rather that remembering can be reliving and relearning events, places, and people of the past. Involuntary memories come up when we smell a scent, or like Proust, taste a particular flavor from our past. These involuntary memories help us to vividly recall not just the taste or smell, but also social associations, personal events, people, and relationships tied to the smell or taste. Our sense memories offer moments to reconsider our pasts, and so — as past is tied to the present — our current selves. This “Proustian Effect” and related phenomena are described by Verbeek and van Campen (2013) in the article “Inhaling Memories” where they share a plethora of examples of social workers, researchers, and artists who recognize sense memories as different from linguistic memory, and use it to aid in social and psychological healing and education of young and old. For example, the crispness, clarity, and emotional weight of smell memories has power to increase self worth in elderly at nursing homes by promoting social activity in discussion of sense memories. Sense and taste therapy can even help fight dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, since smell memories can take us back to our youth, they also take us back to understandings, meanings, and dialogues of “home.” What stands out most to me on this topic is the idea that the metaphorical symbols that food smells and flavors take us back to often manifest cultural principles that we negotiate in our present time and spaces. This idea is expounded upon in David Suttons’ (2005) “Synesthesia, Memory, and the Taste of Home.” I could use the example of the mango fruit to help explain this concept. For me, smelling the peel of a mango, takes me back to eating mango in the backyard with my mom and sisters in San Diego, 1998. It also, immediately and somehow simultaneously, takes me back to the conversations I had with my mom about how she would eat mango with her brother in jungle trees growing up in the summers in Panama in the 1970s. My mother, in the 70’s with her brother, and the 90’s with my sisters and I, would eat the mango with her hands and teeth and nothing else. She would peel the skin off with her teeth, bite into the meat that surrounded the seed, and at the end, finally, put the shred of peeled skin halfway into her mouth and scrape the small layer of flesh that remained on the skin with the back of her front teeth. I learned to eat mango this way from watching her. Today, sometimes I use a knife and peeler, cut it into chunks, and eat it from a bowl with my hands or a fork. But every so often, when I eat it the way my mother taught me, the mango peel is right up close against my face, my olfactory nerves are charged, and the experience intimately forces me to smell the unique scent of the fruit and the peel in a deep way, both physically and emotionally. It is in the same strong, pleasurable and empowering feelings induced by food that are described in the works of Erdinç (2001) and Warren and Dennis (2005) (which I highly suggest). Not only do I suddenly recall images of my mother and sisters, but the scent of the peel makes me recall the value of the fruit that my mother taught us, the nutritional value that mango has, the value in eating every last bit we could scrape up off that peel, and so the cultural values of appreciation, gratefulness, and pleasure in food and the simple joys and satisfactions of life. Then I remember my heritage and my Panamanian roots. Really, and honestly, these are the things that the smell of mango peel takes me to. Each time I have mango in this way, I have current time and place negotiations with these meanings and understandings of my self, of my identity. As Sutton suggests, food really does participate in the recreation of our social bonds, cultural values, and personal understandings of self. Memories take us there.

Memories, food, and the senses are highly invaluable to the cultural anthropologist – in looking at this trio together in research, one can gain real, intimate perspectives of the demarcations and delineations of studied cultural identities. The philosophy and psychology behind food, sense, memory, and emotion are so deeply fascinating and should be more regularly considered in our field.


Erdinç, Ferda. 2001. Journeys through Smell and Taste: Home, Self, Identity. In Food and the Memory, edited by Harlan Walker, 91-99. Totnes, UK: Prospect Books.

Proust, Marcel. 1981. Remembrance of Things Past. New York: Random House.

Sutton, David. 2005. Synesthesia, Memory, and the Taste of Home. In The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink, ed. Carolyn Korsmeyer, 304-316. New York, NY: Berg. Print.

Verbeek, Caro, and Cretien Van Campen. 2013. Inhaling Memories. The Senses and Society 8(2): 133-48.

Warin, Megan, and Simone Dennis. 2005. Threads of Memory: Reproducing the Cypress Tree through Sensual Consumption. Journal of Intercultural Studies 26(1-2): 159-170.



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