Soul Foods

At the end of my sister’s street in Cambridge, England, there’s a coffee shop called Hot Numbers. I go there every time I visit her, not just because the coffee is excellent, but also because of the treats they offer. Many of them are unavailable here in New York: flapjacks (not a pancake but a buttery, crumbly oat bar), Jaffa Cakes, and Bakewell tarts. Eating these delights is like traveling back in time for me. I spent a year of college studying in England, and when I wasn’t focused on W. B. Yeats or Philip Larkin, I was usually trying to order lunch in words that made no sense to me (I’ll buy you lunch if you can tell me what a “bap” is), or eating foods I had never heard of that soon became mainstays. Cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, a particular kind of cookie called a Hobnob, black-currant-flavored candies, and all the aforementioned baked goods, among other things, became part of my palate and have had a hold on me ever since.

So, last December, while visiting my sister and her family at a time of year already replete with candy and sweets, I snuck out one damp, cold morning to Hot Numbers, where I bought a flapjack, inhaled the sugary scent, bit in, and stepped through my magic portal. Suddenly, I was, if not actually twenty years old again, at least able to recall vividly for a brief moment what it had been like. Or, more accurately, what I had been like.

Proust, of course, penned the most famous description of this phenomenon, but never before has it been so well explained for a general audience, and from so many angles—scientific, psychological, cultural—as it is in First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Basic Books, $28). What’s more, First Bite was largely written at the tables . . . in Hot Numbers! Bee Wilson, who lives in Cambridge, reveals this extremely pertinent-to-me information in her acknowledgments, where she thanks the entire staff of the coffee shop. Clearly, she has not only written a fascinating book about identity and how our tastes and food preferences are formed (and can be changed), she is also truly wise. It’s entirely well and good to thank your publisher, your editor, and your agent, but we all know what else makes it possible to get the work done. Delicious coffee and that humble flapjack have the power to elide the decades. They also make you feel loved, happy, and even safe—ideal conditions in which to write a book, certainly, and also in which to live your life.

Wilson touches on everything from eating disorders to how siblings affect our taste to why foods that seem delicious to one culture are repulsive to another. The role of memory in food, though, forms the heart of her book—at least, for me. Among the most interesting tales is that of Marlena, a food writer who, after being hit by a car, suffers head trauma that damages “the nerve connecting to her olfactory bulb—the part of the brain that interprets flavor.” This condition, called anosmia, means she can no longer really enjoy eating things she once loved. “‘Cinnamon drops, a childhood favorite, were bitter, horrible. . . . Tamales were as bland as porridge. Bananas tasted like parsnips and smelled like nail polish remover.’ As for chocolate, it was ‘like dirt.’” Even worse, Marlena felt her whole identity become disturbingly fluid. She told a radio interviewer, “Your world has a certain taste. . . . You’re used to certain flavors in your life and if you take that away, you start saying, ‘Who am I?’” It’s eating as an existential crisis. As Wilson writes, “The predicament of those who develop anosmia later in life is that they have the memories, but no means to access them. They are cut off from their own past.”

It turns out that our ideas about the way things taste are like our perceptions of our pasts—based on reality, but heavily edited and influenced by external forces. “Flavor is not actually in food, any more than redness is in a rose or yellow is in the sun,” Wilson tells us. “It is a fabrication of our brains, and for each taste, we create a mental ‘flavor image,’ in the same way that we develop a memory bank of the faces of people we know.” That’s why a bite of your mother’s lasagna or of the brand of ice cream you were only allowed to have at Sunday dinner between 1970 and 1975 is so important to you. And it’s not just the way it tastes, but everything associated with that taste, that affects your experience of a food. For example, we think of soup as a soothing, hearty meal, and sometimes it is. Other times, it’s just liquid by another name, a difference that can be utterly lost on us because of our collective associations with the word. In one experiment Wilson cites, a “soup” made of apple juice heated up and served in a bowl with a spoon left people feeling more satisfied after they ate it than precisely the same kind of juice served cold in a glass. As she points out in one of the wonderfully dry asides that run through First Bite, “It is the idea of soup that makes us full, as much as anything. There’s a reason why those books are called Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

Even when we don’t have it, the idea of food is powerful enough to meet some of our most pressing needs. A group of American POWs in World War II, for example, grappled with the boredom and brutality of their captivity by writing down “elaborate menus and even recipes on scraps of paper. . . . A common theme was writing down Thanksgiving menus, reconstructed from ‘memories of childhood gatherings.’” In one of the book’s most moving passages, Wilson quotes a postcard that took sixteen months to reach its recipient, an Australian POW. On it, the soldier’s sister wrote simply: “Dear Russ, Mum’s puddings are still as lumpy as ever. Oodles of love from us all. Pat.” As he later explained, Wilson writes, “this letter told him ‘all [he] wanted to know’: that his family did not accept he was dead, and that ‘the old household jokes about [his] mother’s rather abandoned cooking still flourished.’” In seventeen words, without actually having the pudding in front of him to sample, he was carried to safety across time and space by a beloved (if somewhat disgusting) food.

Derek Key/Flickr

This is the reason I allow my children to eat certain things that I know are bad for them, like gummy bears, the occasional bag of Cheetos, and a particular Bohemian sweet called Oblaten, which is essentially two plate-size round wafers with sugar and crushed almonds pressed in between them—terrible for the teeth but, as far as I’m concerned, good for the soul. I grew up eating all these things, and to deprive my children of them would mean missing a chance to show them who I once was, long before I became their mother (plus, they sometimes give me bites). There is something to be said for pure joy when it comes to feeding children—which can also be, as Wilson rightly points out, a real drag. We give them treats because it’s fun, and as she writes of Pac-Man in a marvelous section about how video games are based on this very same principle: “the game’s basic appeal, which has been replicated by many other games since, is the hypnotic pleasure of seeing a small creature consuming rewards.”

Elsewhere, discussing the necessity of giving up junk food, she reminds us, “It’s hard to let go of these foods and find a better way of eating without a sense of loss. The thing you are losing is your own childhood.” I happen to agree with this, but I’m not ready to lose mine (or the power to evoke it for my digital-native children using one of the few unaltered items left to me, even if that item happens to be potato chips). I wonder if it’s totally necessary to forgo the sometimes distasteful stuff that connects us so viscerally with our younger selves, who, after all, helped make us who we are today. I wouldn’t want to contemplate life without flapjacks, or without the looks on my children’s faces when they eat the same German advent-calendar chocolate—low quality, with a smattering of chalky sprinkles—that I did. There are many much-better foods that also connect me to my childhood, some of which I serve to my kids and still eat myself, but banishing the ones that aren’t so good doesn’t feel right. After all, as Wilson writes, “Food is an inescapable fact of life, and the task for each of us is to find a way to make our peace with it.” There is peace in broccoli, but in gummy bears, too.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).