A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Melissa Martin: Close your eyes and imagine your favorite holiday memory. Anything to do with food?

The main purpose of food is to nourish the body to keep humans alive. But, the taste experience around the holidays is a flavor festival.

The sense organ of taste is the tongue. The receptors for taste, called taste buds, are sensory cells. Adults have between 2,000 and 4,000 taste buds in total. It’s a papillae palapalooza! Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory tastes can be sensed by all parts of the tongue. It’s a saliva celebration! Nerve cells send messages for particular perceptions of flavors on to the brain. It’s a brain bonanza!

However, food is also the star of the show at gatherings, parties, picnics. Traditional, cultural, religious—food serves other purposes as well. Cooking, roasting, frying, grilling, boiling, steaming, baking. Secret recipes passed down through generations.

Close your eyes and imagine the taste of turkey with dressing, pineapple baked ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, fresh-baked bread, pickled eggs, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, fruity punch. Savory, yeasty, vinegary, tart, spicy—pleasing to the palate. Tantalizing to the tongue. Merry to the mouth. Delicious. Delectable. Delightful. Add color. Add aroma, texture, temperature. Add mouth movements of sipping, chewing, swallowing. The stomach fills up amid conversation, laughter, and reminiscing. Digestion happens as you move into the living room to drink coffee and swap stories.

Emotions and Taste

“A bitter pill, sour grapes or sweet nothings – descriptions of taste are very often associated with strong emotions. They express in words states of intense pleasure as well as displeasure…Like taste, our sense of smell is also closely linked to our emotions. This is because both senses are connected to the involuntary nervous system. That is why a bad taste or odor can bring about vomiting or nausea. And flavors that are appetizing increase the production of saliva and gastric juices, making them truly mouthwatering,” surmised a 2016 article on Informed Health Online.

Christmas emotions. What feeling is evoked when you see, smell, and taste your mother’s homemade apple or cherry pie? Your brother-in-law’s hash-brown casserole? Your cousin’s corn casserole? Your aunt’s cream cheese pumpkin rolls? Your friend’s caramel cheesecake? Describe the taste: luscious, scrumptious, yummy. Describe the emotions: happy, pleasant, excited.

Mouthfeel: the effect of sensation and texture on the flavor of food. Read the book, Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) by authors, Ole Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbaek. “Accepting the mouthfeel is dependent on your expectations and previous experiences. Expectations are also quite dependent on your culture and the way you’re brought up. That’s what makes the whole perception of taste so exciting. It’s not only physiology; it’s just as much your upbringing, culture, tradition, and expectations.”

Memories and Taste

Can the taste of your favorite holiday food bring up memories of grandma, mom, or other loved ones? The human brain is able to associate the flavor of food to intense emotional memories. And the role of smell in flavor is the reason food has such a strong ability for bringing up memories.

The olfactory bulb is connected to the amygdala, an area involved in creating emotions, as well as the hippocampus, an area involved in creating memories. Emotion and memory connect holiday experiences together.

What’s your favorite holiday food memory? Family, friends, and food are key ingredients. Did you bake cut-out cookies with your siblings? Or participate in eggnog toasts with friends? Do you remember covered dish dinners at your church, temple, or synagogue? Or catered luncheons at office parties?

Close your eyes and imagine the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen on Christmas day. Think about the flavors. Savor the memories of seasonal traditions.

I esteemed Mamaw Hila’s tender turkey, greasy green beans, and buttery mashed potatoes. Sweet memories of my mother Shirley’s rocky road fudge and apple cake.

The holidays mean something different to each of us, but in the kitchen and around the dinner table is where we create some of our most cherished memories.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Southern Ohio.

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