How Memories Linger Through Music and Food

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The thing about clichés is that they are almost always, at their center, true. Writers trot out the example of the madeleine in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past all the time because it's universal. Roll your eyes if you must. But holiday traditions -- the nostalgia a piece of music brings, the aroma of a roasting turkey or a batch of gingersnaps -- are all important. So what is it about these things that so often propel us to another time and place?

Scientists say that events are imprinted on the brain in two forms via neural pathways. The first is a short-term memory – the overnight cramming for an exam, after which you forget everything. Then there's the long-term – a baseball game with a beloved grandfather, for example. Or this recollection, from WQXR's Naomi Lewin:

"Back when I was in graduate school (majoring in voice), I used to stick around long after everyone else had gone home for vacation to sing a late-night Christmas Eve service, and then jump on a midnight train, from which my father picked me up at 3 am. The second year I did this, a nasty cold snuck up on me, leaving me sitting alone on December 24th in an empty dorm, with a heavy head and scratchy throat, feeling like the last person alive (barely) in the universe.

And then I turned on the radio, to find that the local public station was airing "Nowell Sing We Clear" -- an indescribably wonderful mid-winter program starring John Roberts, Tony Barrand and friends. Sitting there listening to the cheerful, way-off-the-beaten-path carols, armed with a cup of hot cocoa spiked with a bit of the "43" liqueur that had accompanied me home from my studies in Spain the previous summer, all the horribleness melted away.

Even though I don't celebrate Christmas, every year, I bake dozens and dozens of cookies to give as gifts. And every year, as I bake my Christmas cookies, I put on my recording of "Nowell Sing We Clear," and let John and Tony remind me of what a powerful mood-altering substance music -- and the radio -- can be." (Listen to the song "Chariots" below.)

Dr. Oliver Sacks is a physician and author of several books including Musicophilia, which looks at music's power on the brain. He explained how passionate music is imprinted on the areas of the brain responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity.

"I know, for example, that whenever I think of the Bach Chaconne, I remember Yehudi Menuin playing it in London in the war in 1943,” he said. “That performance in Harringay Arena comes to mind whenever I hear or think of the Chaconne.” Sacks adds that for some people with dementia, who may have lost much of their memory and their bearings, music will suddenly take them to a time and a place and how they felt when they heard it.

Francine Segan is a food historian and the author of a number of books, including The Opera Cookbook and Dolci. She says that many strong memories about the holiday season are often created around gatherings in the kitchen. "For me personally; my grandmother, who was Italian, loved Mozart,” she explained. “And she would play Don Giovanni's aria “Fin ch'han dal vino.” It's a very upbeat one. It lasts about a minute and it was just perfect. Every time she whipped fresh whipped cream, that's what she would play in the background. And I associate Don Giovanni with wonderful desserts topped with glistening whipped cream."

Now it's your turn. Tell us about the crossroads of music and food and memory for you. Was it a family dinner? Was it a meal which helped steer a blossoming romance in the right direction? Was it a crisp cookie and a glass of wine at intermission at a concert? Are you creating new memories and traditions? Let us know in the comments section below.