x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The foods that can always take us back to our childhoods

Why do we continue to crave the brand of peanut butter we grew up with, even when it's not the peanuttiest? Because sometimes, the first cut is the deepest.

One of my all-time favourite lines (from the song Asleep and Dreaming by The Magnetic Fields) goes: "I don't know if you're beautiful because I love you too much." When I first heard it, I recognised the feeling as one I had been trying to articulate ever since childhood, when I realised that the most beautiful people I had ever seen were the ones I loved the most.

I can feel the sweet blind spot of bias warming my middle again now, as I stand in the privacy of my kitchen, stirring evaporated milk into the day's cup of instant coffee. It's a nasty, stubborn habit that I cherish and, what's more, it's not even my worst one.

I can't defend the taste of instant coffee, nor would I ever want to try, but I love it the way someone else might love her smelly old cat that tears up the furniture and terrorises the dog.

In the rear-view mirror of the mind is a trail of crumbs. If we follow the trail, it usually leads back to the very beginning, when our mouths knew milk and nothing else, and our doughy little hands reached out for novelty and warmth, as open and ready for the world as ever they would be.

Within each of us is a unique vault of memories that have left impressions on us like tiny handprints, immortalised in clay. No upbringing, however sheltered, can protect us from the inevitability of forming likes and dislikes.

People who judge things for a living are called upon to cultivate objectivity. But even the most unprejudiced palate has a history, and is sensitive to that history. We can forge and sever attachments to our memories, and we carry some of those memories in our mouths.

Marcel Proust famously linked the whims and inconsistencies of past experience with the sensory experience of eating food in the present moment. That's what the concept of comfort food is based on - and what makes its value subjective. Nostalgia sometimes motivates our food choices.

Immigrants try to recreate the flavours of their native lands with the ingredients that are available to them in their new homelands. We try to recall the tastes of our childhoods including, sometimes, ones that were about sustenance, not pleasure.

The word "nostalgia" comes from the Greek roots for returning home (nostos) and pain (algia). Sometimes, nostalgia brings us back to a place of innocence and vulnerability, but more often than that, it brings us home. For many adults, "home" is something we have redefined or created anew; our childhood homes may no longer exist, or they might be very far away. Through taste, we can find ways to return to it.

In A Feast Made for Laughter, Craig Claiborne describes the smell of sautéing garlic, onions, celery and green bell peppers, and how it filled the kitchen of his mother's boarding house and his memory of all the dishes his mother prepared and that he always identified with "southern cooking" and home. I still carry mild residual trauma from my introduction to a green pepper. My cousin Rema had given me a whole one and instructed me to bite into it, promising that it would taste exactly like a pear; I never recovered from the disappointment.

The holidays often evoke intense nostalgia. Thanksgiving with my Lebanese family in New England always featured a hulking turkey stuffed with Lebanese spiced rice and meat (called "ouzi"), flanked by platters of hummus and tabbouli and baba ghanoush. But the first year I had a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner scarred me. I was served sweet potatoes beneath a crust of toasted marshmallows, coin-shaped carrots coated in a thick, honeyed glaze and turkey clotted with cloying red jelly. Other dinner guests oohed and aahed over the whole hot mess while I struggled to choke it down. Eventually, I stopped thinking of it as dinner and started to think of it as dessert. And to my surprise, I liked it.

For such a sentimental species, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of living in the present. It's no wonder that so much of modern psychotherapy focuses on closing the gap between living in an idealised version of reality and the one that's happening, here and now. Dogs and cats live in the present, and yet we consider them to be less sophisticated than humans. But we're so motivated by familiarity that we're happy to travel across the world just to eat at the same fast-food chain we frequent in our home towns. We make the same mistakes again and again. Even dogs and cats learn more quickly than we do.

Children are rooted in the controlled geography of the home environment. Having grown up with a poster of Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning in the hallway near my room, I was shocked to see the painting hanging at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Too young to connect the dots but old enough to be offended, I told my father that the museum had stolen our painting. Drawn to familiarity, my still-developing senses couldn't distinguish between second and second-best; between authenticity and impostor. Why do we crave boxed macaroni and cheese when we're perfectly capable of making a superior version, with real cheese and imported pasta? Why do we continue to crave the brand of peanut butter we grew up with, even when it's not the nuttiest, and brand loyalty is the least of our priorities? Because sometimes, the first cut is the deepest.


Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico