How the Food We Eat Reminds Us Who We Are

It’s an understatement to say that I like to eat. Beyond raising fork to lips, I like just talking about food. I also love cooking, and when I see a particularly well-arranged plate, I often can’t help but snap a picture.

But there’s a bigger reason I love food, something more important than its taste or aroma. Eating is the ultimate social activity; we take friends out for coffee and drinks, cook meals for the people we love, and ask potential mates out to dinner. We build relationships around the irreplaceable pleasure of sharing food with others.

For most of us, food’s origin as a social facilitator can be traced back to our relationships with our parents. They fed us as we grew, providing both comfort and sustenance (and in the process building love and trust). Often, our early food experiences leave a mark that’s interwoven with family memories. When I was a child, my mother used to make rice porridge with sweet potatoes for me when I was sick. Now, when I feel under the weather, I crave sweet potatoes.

Psychological studies point to some solid reasons why foods and smells can elicit such strong memories. The hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for forming long-term autobiographical memories, is strongly connected to the parts of the brain responsible for emotions and sense of smell. It’s also linked to hormones that regulate eating behavior, impacting things such as appetite and digestion. John S. Allen, a neuroanthropologist, calls food a “privileged target of memory in the brain.” Our biology has primed us with portal to transport us into our memories– and it revolves around food.

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My family never has turkey at Thanksgiving. Instead, we have every other meat imaginable; just no turkey. I call it “Asian Thanksgiving:” pork meatballs with cabbage, braised beef, fish soup, chicken, duck, roasted rack of lamb—our own cornucopia of dishes, souvenirs from the journey my family went through to make it to this land and celebrate this quintessential American holiday. A holiday that is endearingly nicknamed Turkey Day.

While my aunts and uncles, parents, and grandparents are busy preparing the dishes that reflect our family’s culture, the task of making our one traditional Thanksgiving dish falls to me. I make the mashed potatoes, but according to my family’s specifications – lots of garlic, very little butter, and just a dash of milk. No gravy. I also bring the guacamole; my grandmother seems to crave it every November. After all the years she’s been feeding me and my cravings, it is a small task to return the favor.

How and what we eat tells others where we’ve been and who we are. We often express our cultural traditions and identities through food; the memorable days of our lives are paired with certain dishes – from my family’s “Asian Thanksgiving” each November to the American tradition of cookouts, grilling burgers and hot dogs on the Fourth of July. It should be no surprise, then, that food is important when a loss occurs. We bring meals to someone’s home when they’ve lost a loved one, a way of showing tangible love and support. We fuss over them, making sure they’re eating, making sure they have everything they need. Food is how we take care of each other.

When the loss happens to us, we may reach for family recipes and make dishes that are comforting— dishes that remind us of all the love and memories that remain, despite the death. We immerse ourselves in the smells and tastes of our loved one’s favorite dishes. Food is how we remember and pay tribute.

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My grandma, like most grandmas, loves feeding people. She feeds her grown children, and her grown grandchildren. She feeds my friends, and makes sure they have a second and third helping. When I left home for the first time, she made me all my favorite dishes. Refrigerated, frozen, wrapped. Food to take with you, she said, for a taste of love and family when you’re feeling homesick.

As my grandma’s health declines, and her ability to make holidays into grand cooking productions becomes more limited, I am starting to take down her recipes and learn how to make her dishes. None of it is written down. She barely uses measurements – every ingredient, step, and technique is simply part of her. I feel an urgency to preserve it all, as if by codifying her methods, I can keep her with me for longer.

As I cook and learn with her watching over my shoulder, a sense of familial love rises from the pot on my stove, filling the entire kitchen. I think of all the memories I have with her, and I feel a preemptive nostalgia, a dread for the day her time on earth will come to an end. I find myself emulating her, experiencing immense pleasure in feeding people. I know that in a few hours, there will be pork meatballs with cabbage on the table. My family will pour in to gather around the table. We will eat together, and somehow that makes me believe everything will be alright.