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Apr 6, 2011 05:42 PM

Memory of Taste

I had an episode of taste notstalgia recently. I ate a BBQ pork bao that reminded me of Sunday morning dim sum in Monterey Park, CA...but it's been 20 years since I lived in Los Angeles and I realized that I can no longer "taste" those dim sum bao. So I don't know if this taste memory is really accurate. It got me thinking about memory of long does it last?

I have childhood taste-memories of two particular things, my great-aunt's cornbread (we called it cornpone) and my Grandma's chocolate-chip cookies. For years I tried to replicate their flavors with no luck...I know that your tastebuds change as you grow up, but can the be the only explanation? It's been so many years since i tasted the "real" thing that now I'm wondering, if I tasted something that came close, would I recognize it? The cornbread was distinctive, I think, because my parents used to get the cornmeal from Lancaster county, PA, where my mom grew up. Sometime in the mid-90's I had some hush puppies at a restaurant in Chatsworth, CA (the Three Sisters) that tasted so familiar I had to ask them where they bought their cornmeal (it wasn't from Lancaster County!). But now I forget what it really tasted like...that makes me a little sad.

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  1. Taste is really an olfactory (smelling) sense and smell is the most evocative sense. Obviously your sense of taste (and smell) change over the years, but both can provoke a very strong memory recall response.

    I would suggest that over the last 20 years since your particular memory of dim sum bao your sense of taste has 'degraded'. That sounds a lot worse than what I'm trying to say, but as you get older your taste buds die off and become more sparse. If you've ever been at a dinner table with a bunch of 90-something year old people you will notice they all season their food very, very heavily or complain it has no taste :)

    Memories also can become modified over time and sometimes can become a bit muddled. If you get a group of people to witness an incident and then recall it an hour later I guarantee you would get a very different memory from each individual. It could be that your memory has just changed over time?

    I hope that made sense :)

    1. E gimlis1mum, Aloha:

      The Huntress has ably answered most of your question(s), a wise wahine indeed. I covet her Thermomix, and wish she'd hele for some pua'a kalua.

      I will only add emphasis to her explanation that taste is but a shadow of scent, so you should not lament the short-lived memory of taste. Taste is a passing thing, but scent can enslave.

      I'll also add that there are some (otherwise credible) oenophiles who claim to have taste memory of literally every wine they've tasted critically. I still maintain some skepticism of these claims, but I am convinced that there is a wide variability between tasters when it comes to memory. It may be a mnemonic thing, I forget.

      Kaleo (ke kaua)

      2 Replies
      1. re: kaleokahu

        Shucks, Kaleo, I'm blushing!

        The wine tasters you are referring to have a very particular talent (that most of us mere mortals would undoubtedly be skeptical/envious of!) with memory that was explained in a wonderful documentry by a science show called Catalyst we have over here, that alas, I cannot find online. But basically it all comes down to being able to firmly implant a memory in your mind - the best (and only) way of doing so is to create as many neural pathways to the memory as possible, which is done by recalling the memory regularly. So for these oenophiles it may well be that due to their regular drinking and tasting of wine they are regularly recalling the memory - hence creating more neural pathways and reinforcing it in their mind. Just a thought on how it could be possible.

        Yes, I'm a anatomy and physiology nerd - it gets me excited!

        1. re: TheHuntress

          E Huntress Aloha Kaua:

          I will look to find Catalyst, and you have added again to your count of neural pathways with me. Like pikake on the wind.


      2. I agree there is more to it than simply the importance of smell to taste, but that is a notable factor. In fact, our understanding of taste, beyond just the physical process is not very well understood or studied. There is a psychological component to the process that may very well have only personal components and may explain certain taste aversions or “addictions.”

        What seems like ages ago, I posed a similar topic and garnered a few responses. For what it’s worth:

        I seem to recall other, related discussions as well.