How food helps me remember

by Cara Strickland

WHAT DOES MEMORY TASTE LIKE? For me, it’s an artichoke leaf dipped in butter, a glimmer of what is to come when I get to the center—the heart my mom would always prepare for me, cutting off all the green fuzz.

It’s a fish my brother and I caught with my dad at the lake, eaten outside, minding the bones.

It’s my aunt’s five-layer bean dip and my uncle’s BBQ ribs. On the Fourth of July, I could stand near that delicious dip all day, whenever I wasn’t in Grandma’s pool. You had to line up for those ribs because they’d be gone in a flash.

It’s also another aunt’s chocolate-dipped peanut brittle…Mom’s chicken pot pie…Dad’s stir fry… and my brother’s prize-winning cookies.

So many of my memories connect with food, perhaps because eating engages all our senses. Even before we begin to eat, there is the sight and scent of nourishment. With that first bite or sip, we sense the texture, feel the temperature, hear a subtle sound or crunch, and then, finally, taste.

Certain foods take me right back to a specific moment in time or specific people.

Since the death of two of my grandparents, I’ve thought a lot about the way food connects with our memories of loved ones. One of my first memories of being with my granddad is of waking up on a weekend morning to find that he’d bought donuts for us.

At least once, he bought a donut so huge it took up the entire box, filling me with awe. I remember that it took us a couple of days to eat the entire pastry. But that was my granddad—always trying to surprise his family by giving us something that would bring us delight. He made sure there were fudge bars in the freezer in the heat of summer. He would drive to my grandmother’s favorite restaurant, just to bring her the salad she loved. And for himself, when we visited a buffet restaurant he liked, he’d always get the banana pudding.

My grandma always hosted the big family parties at her house. We went there for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and the Fourth of July. Whenever I use an ice cream scoop, I think about the singing ice cream scoop Grandma bought one year for her grandchildren. A boat ride we took together featured a picnic dinner—shrimp cocktail, my brother’s favorite. A special champagne brunch made me feel so grown up. Around the holidays, we’d find chocolate truffles in glass jars all around her house.

When I saw Pixar’s Coco, something clicked for me.

Growing up in San Diego, I was aware of Día de los Muertos, but this movie showed me just how important food is for memory, for many families. I’d never connected it with All Saints Day because for me, that happened mostly in church. But these days, after three years of pandemic, foods make me think about all the people I love who are no longer here.

Food is still the best way to evoke my memories. Not only do the foods I used to share with those beloved family members bring a kind of solace, merely sitting around the table with other loved ones inspires us to share our memories. Once our conversations start flowing, it’s hard to get them to stop.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that the faith symbol I most associate with memory is based around food. Why did Jesus choose bread and wine to symbolize his body and blood? I think he wanted to choose something his followers would have daily, so they’d be reminded often, whenever they ate and drank, of Jesus’ love and his teachings.

When I participate in the Eucharist, I think about Jesus’ sacrifice, but I also think about resurrection.

When I eat the foods that remind me of people I love who are no longer earth-side, I sometimes feel sorrow while I think about all the good memories of the past. But I also look forward to the future and the day we’ll all be reunited in a place where food won’t spoil, where our bodies won’t be susceptible
to death and decay, where we will live eternally.

In the meantime, I want to borrow some of the vivacity and life of the film Coco. The memories we bring into a new year don’t always have to be quiet and somber. They can also look like celebration—a feast for the senses and for the stomach.

And there’s no need to keep memory to just one or a few days. This year, I want to be more mindful about seeking out those foods and events that keep me close to those I love—those still here and those who have gone on. What better way to forge new memories, even as I honor the old ones?

Cara Strickland writes about food, faith and life from her home in the Pacific Northwest. You can read more of her work at

This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.