Food for Memory

As I do my daily run down the streets of D.C., a scent washes over me and nearly stops me in my tracks, which also happens to be in the middle of the crosswalk. I quickly regain my bearings and continue my run, turning down a street I don’t usually take, which happens to be near a small Japanese restaurant, where the smell of ramen momentarily takes me back to Japan, where I lived four years. 

Having a traumatic and challenging upbringing means I don’t have many memories, and my struggle with anxiety continues to limit new memories from forming. But the smell of food seems to be able to break through. It doesn’t necessarily remind me of a specific moment but a feeling. During my four years in Japan, I couldn’t visit the U.S., so Japan truly became my home. When my husband, an active-duty Marine, was away, which was a lot, I would go to my favorite ramen joint and order a big bowl of miso ramen without corn, but with fried chicken, for takeaway. I would sit outside on a small wooden bench watching to world move by. Inevitably, I would be handed a cup of tea in a small glass to sip while I waited. I have never liked tea, but I always drank tea given to me to show my gratitude and respect for their hospitality. And you know what happened? I’m now a tea drinker. Not even I could’ve seen that coming. I would finish my tea and exchange my tea cup for my ramen. On the short drive home, the scent of all the ramen ingredients would fill my car. Once I got home, I would get my dog a treat, and we would spend the next little bit enjoying something delicious. This became a weekly routine when my spouse was away and brought me so much comfort. It was time I immersed myself in the local culture and spent time with my furry baby. 

I feel the same when I walk by a house and smell Mexican rice. My mom is Mexican, and it was one of my favorite things she would make. To this day, I can’t seem to master it like she can because recipes don’t exist. It’s a joke that our ancestors tell us when we’ve used enough of an ingredient, so maybe I’m just not listening close enough. 

I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in Asia, Africa, and throughout the United States, and food brings me back to those places and the excitement, joy, and even fear I felt. Food is the one thing that can get me back to a moment in my past and make the present fade away. Food is my connection to another time and place. Food is my link to my heritage. Food is my bond to an old version of myself, which gives me perspective to see how much I’ve grown and changed. So long after the food has been eaten and dishes cleared away, the memory remains. A memory, just like food that I couldn’t exist without. 

Thank you Savory Experiments for inspiring this post! Happy eating!

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