I love fried chicken and potato salad. So did my grandmother. I know that because we were close.
But, what if I never met my grandmother? Would I still love those foods? Is it possible that our sensory memories are genetically encoded in our DNA?
Judith Fertig, a Kansas City, Mo.,-based journalist, cookbook author, culinary instructor and novelist, poses those questions in her new culinary novel, “The Memory of Lemon” (Berkley Books, $16).
Claire “Neely” Davis, her heroine, is a pastry chef with a gift for synesthesia. Certain situations trigger taste sensations in Neely’s mouth — bitter, sweet or salty. She can read those flavors to figure out people’s mood, or even as a window into their past. As a wedding-cake baker, this comes in handy when dealing with brides and their mothers.
In researching “The Memory of Lemon,” Fertig came across an Emory University study that suggested mice can inherit sensitivities to smell. “They found that this aversion to this particular scent was passed down in the DNA, so the next generation of mice knew to just stay away from that,” Fertig said. “I think this is one of those things that can eventually be proved in humans.”
Fertig, who comes to Atlanta next week to teach two classes at Cook’s Warehouse, is interested in the way smell and taste evoke emotion.
Cinnamon, spice, chocolate, citrus: These are flavors that can set off responses in mind and body.
“There’s a reason why cinnamon is comforting,” said Fertig, who has authored some 20 cookbooks, many of them on desserts. “It has a chemical property that helps lower your blood sugar.
“Of course, when you have it with a cinnamon roll with all kinds of other stuff, maybe that cancels it out,” she joked.
This reminds me of the time I took my dog Shirley to a fancy spa. The aroma therapist told me that lavender calmed the dog down. She noticed that Shirley’s constantly wagging tail slowed down a little when she sniffed lavender. (That was certainly a helpful bit of information.)
Fertig told me she thinks that lemon lovers tend to be caustic wits who freely dispense sarcasm and vinegar. (Busted.)
In “The Memory of Lemon,” Neely uses lemon to help her father reconnect with certain buried memories. Flipping back and forth in time, Fertig traces the love of lemon back through several generations in Neely’s family.
No surprise that this James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author comes from a long line of lemon lovers. Among her mother and grandmother’s recipes, Fertig found 10 or 15 different types of lemon pie. The pie that’s a long-running obsession in Neely’s family is based on a Shaker lemon pie that Fertig and her mother discovered years ago. Puckery and tart, it’s made with layers of thinly sliced lemons, sugar, egg and a double crust.
Cooking with lemon helps refine and clarify flavors, she said. (I’ll add that it’s a great salt substitute, too.) And limonene, the volatile oil found in lemon zest and lemon balm, aids memory, Fertig said.
This made it a convenient tool for her character, Neely, as she tried to help her father remember his troubled past. The pastry chef sends him lemon cookies, lemon tarts, anything lemon.
But, just because your ancestors loved a certain food doesn’t mean you are going to be the same. “My grandmother and mother loved liver,” Fertig said. “I can’t stand it.”
Maybe the larger lesson is that we should pause and think about what we are eating in the moment, what sort of responses our food evokes.
“I think we are kind of in a flavor-deprived time,” Fertig said. Often, we end up binge eating because we keep searching for flavor.
“A great example is the grocery store sugar cookie,” she said. “It tastes like nothing but sweet. And you take a bite of that, and you think, ‘I know there is flavor in there somewhere,’ and before you know it, you have eaten the whole thing. But you are still not satisfied. Whereas, if you ate one thing that had really great flavor, you would be satisfied.”
Same with fast food, which can be heavy on salt, fat and cheese, but lacking in flavor. “I think flavor is an old horizon that has been made new again. I think that’s worth exploring. What that does when it reaches the pleasure center of the brain,” she said.
I grew up on a South Georgia farm, where we raised our own vegetables: corn, tomatoes, okra, field peas. I often think this gives me some special knowledge about the deliciousness of food grown close to home. Yet, in reality, I end up eating a lot of crap, sometimes forgetting what real food tastes like.
“The Memory of Lemon,” then, has been a wake-up call for me. Maybe I should slow down and reflect on what I eat.
Does it make me feel better? Or worse? Do I binge because I’m eating flavorless food? Have I inherited the eating habits of my ancestors, good and bad? Does eating my grandmother’s food comfort me on some deep emotional level? Of course, it does.
I cannot see field peas without thinking about shelling peas with Nanny. I can’t shuck corn without thinking of how my Mama used to put summer corn in the freezer for winter. We’d fill a pickup with corn, back the truck into our garage, and spend the whole day putting up corn.
Gosh, now I want corn! And maybe a tomato sandwich. Is this a genetic trait, or something I learned?
Maybe I should have a slice of lemon pie and give it some thought. But, first, a little lavender for Shirley.