The Best Souvenir? The Scent of Memory
Back to September-October 2017
The summer of 1963, I traveled to Mexico City with my sister and parents. We did the usual touristy things—a bullfight and a side trip to Cuernavaca (where I witnessed my first fistfight played out in an outdoor vegetable market). But one memory stands apart: my first taste of cilantro served with lamb at a fancy outdoor restaurant. It was intensely grassy and floral, tropically pungent, and the most foreign thing I would experience on this trip.
Years later, I was on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Zagreb. Sitting in third class, I quickly realized there was no food on board and the brief station stops weren’t long enough to hop off and barter with a local vendor in a language I did not speak with money in the wrong currency. Imagine.
Sitting in a crowded carriage filled with Turkish immigrants heading to Germany for work, I was soon offered to share their food—garlicky blood sausage and bread. The rich, pungent flavor of that sausage, like the cilantro before in Mexico, was the signpost that I was in a foreign land, more so than the languages, the people, the landscape.
Flavor is intimate. (Later that evening, I snuck up to the empty first-class carriage. In the early morning, I was thrown to the floor; the train had struck a cow, derailing my car. Out came the Turks with long knives and cut up the animal in quick order. That’s a pretty good sign that you aren’t riding Amtrak.)
Scientists working with rats have determined that emotional memories are connected to sensory input. The obvious human example is that the taste of turkey usually conjures up warm memories of Thanksgiving. But the opposite is also true. In 2014, Israeli researchers discovered that a bad food experience is strongly linked to the time and place where it was tasted. Scientists have also determined that each type of sensory input—taste, smell, sight, sound, touch—have their own links and storage compartments.
And smell, since it is so closely related to taste, may be the most powerful of all. By mixing and matching 128 different odors, researchers now think that we may be able to identify up to 1 trillion different stimuli and that is 150,000 times more powerful than vision, which can detect just 7 million colors, and 2.8 million times more sensitive than our limited sense of sound.
My travel memories are an amalgam of taste and smell. My most potent memory of Vietnam is steamed lemon grass and clams served in Hué and the smell of wood smoke up in the north, when visiting Hmong villages. And Paris, it may be the city of light, but it is all about scent, an intoxicating mix of wet pavement, the funky Seine, bakeries, exhaust, perfume and cigarette smoke mixed with something uniquely fresh and vibrant. The city smells alive.
Other tastes and scents also stand the test of time: an icy tamarind cooler in Chiang Mai, Thailand; dark and luscious dried dates from a leather bag tethered to a camel's saddle while walking in the Sahara; and hot, sweet mint tea served while playing backgammon on the sidewalks of Istanbul.
In this issue of Milk Street, we traveled to West Ramallah to experience one of the strongest flavors of all—sumac. It is served in a dish called musakhan—poached chicken served with large quantities of fruity, sour sumac, onions, tahini, tomatoes, cucumbers, chilies and flatbread. It was prepared by Nadir, a 34-year old Palestinian who is the first male in his family to cook. My first bite of musakhan became an indelible taste memory on a par with my
strongest memory of childhood; the scent of the front parlor of a small yellow farmhouse, wet dog, yeast, molasses, wood smoke and pot roast.
The world is a very big place. You can bring back snapshots and trinkets to remember one’s travels or put down the camera and credit card to experience the scents and flavors of foreign shores. Collect memories instead of things and soon the map becomes a bit smaller, a tad more familiar. Live through taste and the world will start to live within you.September-October 2017