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What I Do to Conjure Up the Memory of My Mother

This always brings her back to me.

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illustration of mother and daughter baking in kitchen
Lucy Kirk
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It was the small, slightly tart, purple plums that recently caught my eye as I passed the grocery store’s produce aisle.

In an instant, I was back in my mother’s cheery kitchen with the pretty flowered wallpaper. I was sitting at her old oilcloth-covered Formica table anxiously awaiting a slice of the delicious Pflaumenkuchen (plum cake) that could only be baked each autumn with this seasonal fruit. I can still remember that warm and loving feeling, as if it happened yesterday, not 80 years ago.

Scientists echo that a sense of well-being can come from the whiff and taste of foods reminiscent of our pasts. According to a 2023 abstract titled “The Proust Effect: Scents, Food and Nostalgia” published in PubMed, the physiological effect triggered by taste and smell can be profound:

“Nostalgic memories triggered by taste and smell are especially self-relevant, arousing and familiar,” the abstract cites. “These memories have an even more positive emotional profile than nostalgic memories elicited by other means … Scent-evoked and food-evoked nostalgia also confer numerous psychological benefits, including enhanced self-esteem, feelings of social connectedness and deeper meaning in life."

For example, as a youngster when you were sick, your mother made your favorite soup to help you feel better. Even decades later, the savory taste of that soup still evokes memories of feeling cared for and loved. Think about the old Campbell’s Soup commercial with soups that were oh-so-good and how those soups bring comfort decades later, with memories of our moms who served them up.

No one expressed food nostalgia in literature better than French author, Marcel Proust, more than 100 years ago. Proust, in his book In Search of Lost Time, wrote that eating a Madeleine, a popular small French cake, dipped in Linden tea, immediately transported him back to happy times in his childhood. This anecdote is an example of what scientists refer to as an “involuntary memory” when a smell or taste unexpectedly unlocks a happy past recollection.

Food memories are often stronger when they utilize all the senses — smell, taste, touch, sight and even hearing, but some research has shown that smell alone can also trigger strong memories.

This is true for my 90-year-old friend, Victor, who grew up in an Italian tenement in Brooklyn. It was traditional back then for mothers to cook big pots of tomato sauce, called gravy, on Sunday mornings for the pasta dishes they would serve their families for dinners after church.

“I’d wake up to those wonderful pungent smells wafting through the building, and be excited knowing that my cousins and my aunts and uncles were coming for dinner,” he said. “So many are now gone, but whenever I smell that sauce, those warm and cozy times return.”

Food nostalgia can also serve as an act of defiance. A small group of women, imprisoned and starving in the Czechoslovakian concentration camp in the town of Terezin, fought off their fear of impending death by putting together a book of their favorite recipes. Each dish is a memory, a fantasy and a hope for the future. The recipes were written with whatever pencils and pieces of paper they could find in the camp, including the back of Nazi propaganda leaflets.

Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and director of the Sig Ziering Institute at the American Jewish University, wrote the forward to a book about them, In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin. In it, he said, ‘’… the women solidified their memories of the world to which they knew they would never return. Their way of coping with starvation was to think of their wonderful food, an imagination to survive.’’

When I asked my daughter, Laurie, now 58, for her favorite food memory, hers was one of defiance too. “Beef jerky and Cheez Doodles,’’ she said.

“How could that be?" I asked her. "Dad and I were fanatics about healthful eating.’’

“I wasn’t allowed to eat those foods, so when I was old enough to walk to 7-Eleven I would use my allowance to buy them. It was thrilling to eat forbidden food!”

Now back to the memories my mother’s cooking conjures up. I wanted to duplicate her plum cake, but alas, her recipe was in her native German and I didn’t speak the language. I found someone to translate it into English for me and someone else to convert her grams and liters to ounces and cupfuls.

I followed the recipe, cut myself a slice and topped it with a dollop of whipped cream — the same way my mother served it to me. It was good, very good, but something was missing. My mother wasn’t there to give me that warm and loving hug — though I always feel her presence when I’m cooking what she cooked in my kitchen.

Now in my mid-80s, I've put together a small cookbook for my own family so they can carry on my culinary traditions — and remember the food they so enjoyed growing up. The book includes my version of a slow simmering chicken soup and the stuffed breast of veal I made each year for the holidays.

As time goes on, I hope they will share my recipes with their children and grandchildren, who will feel my love and an imagined warm hug, the way I do when I prepare foods my mother made for me.

What recipe did your mother pass down to you that you still make to this day? Let us know in the comments.

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