It’s thirteen or fourteen years ago, and it’s someone’s birthday. My dad’s spatchcocking two small but plump game birds that our neighbor brought back in the flatbed of his truck. This early spring, the air in the kitchen smell of herbs as the birds are set in the skillet—rosemary, thyme and lemon mingle with butter and baste crackling skin. I believe the window is open, and I am certain that the sky outside is impeccably cloudless.
I do feel as though I am an active participant in my memories, those vivid ones that are built around family—turbulent as these bonds often prove themselves to be—and food. As strange as it is, the power of taste is often the defining characteristic of our remembrances and our most potent form of recall. The meals we savor inevitably attach themselves to the people and places we are surrounded by and bring them back into realization.
When I find myself entombed in the stasis of the long, dark winter months with nothing to comfort me but the slop of Sharples, I come to miss the food of my lucid recollections with their living scents and tastes. In these moments, food away from home seems to miss the spot. It doesn’t fill the right gaps. In college especially, as I cycle from semester to break and back again, I am jarred by the marked disjunction which exists between cafeteria fare and genuine homemade meals.
Certainly, there is the matter of food’s literal ingredients. Higher quality produce, dairy and meat not only add nutrients, but they contribute clarity and depth to food—characteristics that are central to the wholesomeness that Sharples sometimes lacks.
However, food is undoubtedly more than the sum of its parts — when it comes to home cooking, there are less tangible components to consider. I am thinking especially of cooking with friends and family and the intimate connections that go into sharing a meal and having truly profound experiences with food.
For instance, here I am again with my father, boiling fingerling potatoes, mashing them with dill this time and more butter. Now I am sipping dark coffee on the porch and having waffles the way he eats them—topped with strawberry jam. With these smells and sensations, the rest—whether it be the chipped paint on my family’s old wooden chairs or the sound of lazy wind chimes—takes on life, coalescing into shards of memory that are durable and safely unforgettable.
The phenomenon of visceral and inexplicable recollection tied to food is called “taste memory,” and it is responsible for the special allure of home cooked meals. But distilling the sensation into hard terminology seems to rob it of its essence as the intangible force that emanates a deep, spreading warmth. Instead, I like to visualize the strands of steam rising from the braised pork shoulder my mom makes as it melts apart. This seems to do it justice as a concept that is uniquely personal.
As Jamie Feldmar, a writer for the James Beard Foundation and the Serious Eats food blog, put it, “…anyone who remembers a sacred sandwich from childhood can attest, food memories rarely exist in a vacuum; they are inextricably tied to where you were when you had that unforgettable bite.” Feldmar is right—it is important to remember that as we eat at home, we aren’t just eating food. We are, in some sense, ‘eating’ the very concept of home itself by evoking the sensations and feelings of place which are “inextricably tied” to the act of consumption. With each bite, we take in and perceive far more than mere nutrients or flavors.
Is it possible, though, to recreate these intimate experiences of taste memory in kitchens around campus? Without a doubt, coming together with friends and recreating cherished meals from home can, in a small and meaningful way, push back against the seemingly crushing force of the Swarthmore bubble by bringing in the aroma and aura of home.
By the same token however, the notion of homemade meals is fundamentally tied to place. It is because of this, perhaps, that home cooking away from home can feel like a diluted reproduction, one sapped of some concrete essence—a bit like a soul without its body.
Though it is quite difficult at times, I endure through the long winter months with the quiet solace of my memories, while also making sure to enjoy the variety and unique offerings which make Sharples special. Without a doubt, Sharples itself contains a history of moments—whether it be meals after brutal nights or before the triumph of having conquered another finals period—that constitute their own fond and irreplaceable experiences.
But, after the world has thawed and every paper has been submitted and manically proofread, there is simply no substitute for the central “ingredient” which lends a vitality to home cooking that cannot be matched—that of returning. The idea of homecoming, however tumultuous, allows us to reunite and confront the food, people and places that have the power to define some central part of us.