How much of our food memories are manufactured by our inventive minds?

Words by Andre Zollinger; Art by Javed Imthiaz

When I was six years old, I was forced to eat a tomato for the first time during summer camp. It was in a long and narrow room buzzing with hyperactive kids at mealtime. Taking my hand and dragging me to a place where the red slivers full of seeds and geometrical innards were displayed, the counsellor, I still don’t know for what reason, took one and plainly stuffed it into my mouth.

For many years, when recounting this story, I would conclude it with a grand finale that featured my vomit all over the floor, screams and cries. But with time, I revised this ending, coming to the realisation that I must have spit the tomato back at the counsellor’s face. As distance from the original event blurs an already foggy image, I begin to seriously doubt many of the details of my testimony. Was I really wearing my favourite stripy shirt? Was the counsellor’s name Tomas and did he really have a curly mustache that I’ve ever since associated to tomatoes? Did the other kids actually jeer when they saw my overblown reaction?

Luckily, I have a lot of other food memories, most of which are very pleasant like eating fish and chips on rickety wooden tables covered in newspaper at grandma’s favourite place on the Redondo Beach pier; the chocolate ice cream cake I had on my tenth birthday; long Sunday afternoons spent with my family at the leafy patio of a Mexican restaurant bordering the water near the San Pedro port. We would order fajitas and a while later they would come sizzling in a hot platter with fresh tortillas. Enormous ships passed by as we assembled our tacos and took bets on whether they would really fit under the suspension bridge marking the port entrance. Matzeball soup. Gefiltefish. (Never mind, the latter is not exactly a pleasant experience).

There is something about a taste, the experience of eating a delicious (or repulsive) meal that impregnates the mind with a kernel of memory that is more resilient and less prone to be forgotten than most banal experiences of daily life. But what about when memories are simply invented? Today, I don’t remember what I ate exactly two weeks ago, but if somebody I trust, say, my wife Adélaïde, told me that I had a magret de canard (duck breast), I would probably believe her.

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Not only that, but I might even visualise the memory, depending on how much detail is given. It scares me sometimes when I believe recalling an exact event, like storing a valuable in a particular place, only to find out that I was totally wrong. The images in my brain recalling that event were completely fabricated, which brings me to the question: how much of our past is fiction?

 

The elasticity of our memories drives me to think of the range of moods and feelings that alter our perceptions of ourselves and the world. In accessing the past through memory, we are always selecting and editing from the archive of a constantly evolving personal history. Not to mention the fact that the very way we reflect on particular events also changes over time and according to experience. Maybe the revision of my tomato memory occurred after eating so many delicious tomatoes that I simply could not believe it was ever this bad… I guess being aware of our own ways of manufacturing memories is the only way to gain a greater grasp over our own stories.

(This article was first published on Andre’s and Adelaide’s blog Infinite Belly.)