x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Food associations can be funny things

The association between language, images and sensory experiences can be so powerful that I can usually 'taste' people's names before I even remember what they are.

My mother's name has always reminded me of plums. I love how the ripe purple roundness of the word rolls like damsons across a table. No word is a sultrier song for steak cooked medium-rare and sliced against the grain than my youngest sister's name. My other sister's name is silvery and sustained, like running water. And my own name, which rhymes blandly with "loaf", reminds me of a russet potato, dusky and raw.

The associations between language, images and sensory experiences can be so powerful that I can usually "taste" people's names before I even remember what they are. Synaesthesia manifests as a simultaneous experience of sensory perceptions after one is stimulated independently. It's served me well. For example, I can permanently file away long combinations of numbers as if they are bar codes with colour sequences, which helps me remember things like phone and credit card numbers after I've heard them once.

Food associations aren't always so straightforward. Ruling out a history of trauma or militant vegetarianism, why does the smell of frying chicken spark some appetites while ruining others? Those of us with stomachs of steel have learnt to ask "Are you squeamish?" when we talk about something that could be perceived as unappetising. I've erred on the side of insensitivity and have seen the resulting pallor, the shudder of revulsion, the grimaces and sudden loss of interest in continuing to eat. But people can recover from these impulses; there's nothing like sharing a pizza in the hall outside a cadaver lab with the smell of formaldehyde still clinging to your fingers two weeks after you thought you might never enjoy food again to convince me that it's true.

When the associations get too heavy, some familiarity with how to dissociate is helpful. People can collect food phobias like objets d'art. When I invited people over to eat rabbit last month, two declined on the basis that bunnies are too cute to eat. Annoyed, I almost responded: "Don't worry, these bunnies weren't very cute after they'd been skinned and butchered." It seemed an arbitrary and ignorant objection. Aren't cows cute? What about chicks that grow up to become chickens?

Historically, food poisoning and grief over the death of a loved one have been the only things that could turn me ill at the thought of food. During happier times, I might have been sucking up bowls of tripe like a kid slurping spaghetti. A grieving heart, at its most acute, will churn the core of my being into an emotional rubbish disposal, incapable of extracting goodness from anything and too sore and indelicate to dissect it.

Are we so uncomfortable with reality that we can enjoy a bloody action film but not the thought of cutting up a whole chicken, opting instead to have a gloved stranger handle it for us? We want our blood made of ketchup or contained in our circulatory systems where we think it belongs. We ignore the list of ingredients on processed food but buy skimmed milk and fat-free yogurt, allegedly for health reasons, although they are considerably less delicious and less nutritious than their dreamy, creamy, full-fat counterparts.