By Leigh Morrow
My girlfriend was visiting me last weekend, and we stopped for some fresh fruit, the first of the summer, at one of the roadside stands along our travels. When we hopped back into the car, she handed me a bottle that looked very much like a beer bottle.
“Try this”‘ she said with a big smile. It was a new product, something I had never seen before, but nostalgically marketed, geared to those of us old enough to remember the flavor. The taste was instantly familiar; licorice, fennel and spear-minty. It was root beer, something I hadn’t tasted in many years, and that unforgettable flavour, on first sip instantly transported me to the backseat of my father’s green station wagon with the wood grain siding. The car had just pulled into the Drive-In, and our A&W waitress was rollerskating up to deliver our order. From where I sat, squished in the back, with the luggage, the bird in its cage, and my wriggling brother, the tray she deftly maneuvered, always looked like it would topple off the half raised windowpane, or snap the glass in two from the weight, but it never did. We would each order a cheeseburger, one order of onion rings to share, and for the kids, baby root beer, served ice cold in little frosted mugs that little hands could hold. It was a tradition that would be repeated only once a year, so each sip of icy cold “sarsaparilla”, as my Dad would call it, would fizz down my throat in glee. Despite that memory being at least fifty years old, it’s clear and crisp, like a winter sun. The back of my mother’s head as she eats her burger, and turns around to check on us, passing copious paper napkins for the drips, the bee bop music from the Drive-In filling my ears, the pretty waitresses on wheels, spinning by the car, and with the last day of class behind me, and that glorious sense of summer stretching endlessly in front, I drank it in, savouring every sip and bite of that special, once a year summer tradition at the Drive-In.
Foods, or drinks like my favorite root beer, play a powerful role in human memory. The taste, smell and texture of food can be extremely evocative, bringing back not only the memory of the food, but also the place and time it happened and who was with you, sharing that meal. Food is in fact a pathway to the past, linking us emotionally to our memories, both good and bad. Food may, in fact, provide a very specific target for the brain to recall past events.
What’s amazing about our brains and our memory of food is only starting to be discovered. Researchers for years thought there was no correlation between the taste of a food and the time and place, one experienced the taste. The belief was that the brain would just create a memory of the taste, good or bad, and the brain would store that data unrelated as to time or place. Yet, experiments have exposed the richness and the complexity of the simple sensory experiences that are engraved in our brains to show the taste sensation is automatically coded along with specific data (the episode) stored in the hippocampus. The hippocampus has strong connections with parts of the brain associated with emotion and smell, and this may be why certain smells, like a warm cake just baked or a fresh cut orange, trigger an emotional response to a recalled sense of time, even before we understand what that event was that we remember.
Naturally the hippocampus is there to help us survive, and many of our digestive hormones, the ones that regulate appetite, digestion, eating disorders, all have receptors in the hippocampus. If finding food is survival, then the hippocampus can deliver specific memories about and around food to help us.
Since scientists believe emotion, and novelty of an event, like my once-a-year, en-route-to-the-cottage, stop for root beer at the Drive-In, makes the memory that much more powerful. Tie that in with a family vacation, a driving trip, or summer holidays, all special events in the life of a child, and you can easily see why the taste of a food, or the cool sensation of a special drink would become etched in our brains forever more. I handed the bottle back to my girlfriend, saying, “That’s really good”, started the car, and reluctantly, drove back to the present.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean-front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at www.gosanagustinillo.com