Affect Food

I read about someone researching funeral foods in different cultures.

She interviewed a Latino couple, who recalled “emotion cookies” from their childhoods. Almond-flavoured cookies, each with a differently flavoured topping: orange peel, cinnamon. As this researcher discovered: “You sit down with a cup of hot chocolate and you choose a cookie with a topping flavour that reminds you of a moment with the person you’ve lost. As you eat the cookie you re-experience the emotion that the smell or taste evokes.”

One of my areas of research as an academic, is affect. Affect is intense, embodied feeling, that happens before you can put a name to it. I describe it as the chill down your spine or the prickle at the back of your neck. It might not make sense. It might be something you don’t even want to feel.

I write about media and affect: how we might have feelings about a tone of voice, or the technology itself. How the radio or the cellphone might itself evoke certain feelings that impact on how we receive the news. And how affect is contagious.

When I listened, a couple of years ago, to news about so-called terrorist threat and “homegrown” terrorists in our midst, I could sense a general anger and fear building in momentum, I kept the radio on so that I could hear any alternative views, should they be aired. I stopped listening to the content of what people were saying, and instead tracked the emotional timbre of their voices, which invariably spanned just a few predictable affects: hurt and fear resulting in anger. Affect really is contagious: I, too felt anger, but my anger had a different object: government and media.

But affect and food? I haven’t given it as much thought, which is odd, since I do so much food writing. What flavours evoke feeling, and how is that feeling different from rational thought?

I’m drinking coffee as I write this, and I think about how coffee makes me feel mature, worldly, perhaps even sophisticated. It can even evoke happiness. My habitual granola breakfast has its roots in a deep desire, as a child of the 70’s, for a hippie era I’d tragically missed by a decade.

There are foods I avoid, or seldom eat because they are too powerfully evocative of people long gone, or far away, and the stew of affects – love, guilt, sorrow, relief, shame – connected to them.

And there are foods, like the autumnal tomato pie, or the tsimmes I make only at Thanksgiving, Passover and Christmas, that create memory and affect even as they are made. As my friend The BeeKeeper has described, these ritual foods create a body memory of an event. The tedious peeling and chopping of root vegetables this Thanksgiving will locate me in the everyday of my life and the friends with whom I will feast.

My friend The Literary Tour Guide makes pie every time I visit. She lives in Berlin, but the pie brings back Fredericton, New Brunswick and the smells of trees and river, and all the affects of home.

What foods evoke feeling or memory for you?


  1. I like this term! I have such a long list of foods that evoke feelings and memories. In someways I hope that as I age that my palate will help me hold on to my memories.

    I wonder if there is any research on that topic out there?

  2. For a long time, I thought my grandmother had a secret ingredient that she added to her onions as soon as she threw them into her cast-iron pot, because “onions-frying-in-Mammy’s-kitchen” was a smell that ballooned into my memory, one I could never replicate.

    And then I read a memoir, and the main character’s mother-in-law says don’t ever add the fat before you add the onions. Dry-fry them for a minute, first. Then, when the smell hits you, add your schmaltz, oil if it’s not a meat meal. I thought, why not.

    The onions, I diced perfectly even, like she did before her hands got weak. Threw them into a hot cast-iron skillet with no oil, almost felt the scent before it hit me. Perfect. Mammy’s kitchen: its vintage stove, rolled linoleum floor, butcher-block table and single fluorescent bulb blooms from my frying pan. This smell has the power to bring people into the kitchen by their noses. It fits into the crevices of my hands like a child’s trusting palm. My hair, greedy with snarls, pulls it in and holds it for hours.

  3. That’s interesting because it’s made me realize what drives me crazy about these new age “live in the present” gurus who say the same thing over and over again many different ways. The truth is we always live in at least two time zones at once–body memory mediates the present. Palates can be educated over time. The affect we have around a food would change depended on whether or not we’d been deprived of that food for a long time. Why not embrace the present with the past? Is the shame of our past partly based on the idea that our tastes evolve and we are ashamed of what we used to crave, ie a big fat steak? I have many food memories and I think your strategy of creating memoirs around food are fantastic. I had some good bacon today in a club sandwich and I remember when we went to North Battleford for a figure skating intensive and stayed in a kitchenette for the first time in a motel. Mom found this amazing bacon and so now figure skating and bacon are linked in my memory.

  4. Dill and parsley both bring me right back to being a kid. The herbs my grandmother cooked with were right from the garden and very flavourful… And Estonian food being full of dill and parley, my GM pretty much threw it into every single meal. For most of my life, I’ve avoided both of these herbs because I don’t always want to be so powerfully reminded of my childhood. Also, maybe I don’t want to overuse and dilute their power so that when I’m old and nostalgic, they can still bring me back.

  5. When ever I smell pickling spices or buy a jar of piccalilli I am transported back to my grandmothers kitchen. I see her large black speckled roasting pan on the stove cooking the tomatoes, peppers, onions and the little bag of spices that was in the pan.

    Whenever I add chives to mashed potatos I recall going out to her garden and gathering some and then coming in and snipping them into the potatos and then mashing them. That was one of my jobs which I loved. One time horrors of horrors she dumped in chocolate milk. What a time we had scooping it out and evertime I see chocolate milk I think of that almost disaster. How we all laughed at dinner.

    Its strange after all these years, I am now 62 that I can see her kitchen clearly, see the making of apple pies, the gathering of wild grapes and berries for jelly, (and ugh!) the making of head cheese and all the other good food that we had even though we were as poor as a church mouse.

    Thanks for this beautiful story and for a wonderful blog.

  6. We decided that we share the same favourite emotion for food — comfort. Is that an emotion? lol. Mashed potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, avocado & egg arepas, almost any kind of cheese, or especially soup (especially lentil soup) made by someone’s grandma. It’s very important that it be from the grandmother and not the mother. We do not know why, it is just so.
    xox great topic! we miss you.

  7. Dana,
    I like the idea of the palate holding on to memories.

    lovely story.

    I heart your food memories.

    funny, I use dill very rarely but probably for the same reason…

    Thanks for taking us to your grandmother’s kitchen.

    Sandra and Yud,
    Yes I think comfort is an emotion.

  8. Do you know what affect me most? I was affected by your blog, I feel hungry of the pictured you posted! Lol! Anyway, thanks! I learn from your blog.

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