FOOD FOR THOUGHT PART 1: MEMORY & CHILDHOOD
I usually begin my workday at 5 AM, racing towards the bus stop on Fraser Street and Kingsway. To support my ongoing writing habit, one of my jobs includes being a college admissions essay coach, which sometimes means fourteen-hour teaching days.
Waking at 4 AM began as a childhood routine. It started during ice hockey practice and having to chomp down a supersized still-frozen chocolate muffin from Costco before driving 45 minutes with my father from our Coquitlam suburb to Planet Ice.
“Dad, I’m so tired,” I’d complain, while trying to gnaw on my still-frozen breakfast, which was the color and texture of a hockey puck.
“Only losers complain,” my father would say, twisting my long hair into a ponytail. “Are you winner or loser, Lindsay? Just shut up, eat muffin, and win game.”
The chocolate Costco muffin was always filling, and it would last me through 2.5 hours of a intensive hockey practice or a tournament game. As assistant captain of my AA female hockey team, I played a mean left defense.
As an adult, It’s not much different, except that I’m now hustling with a thermos of black coffee and a banana to teach Ivy League hopefuls how to write compelling personal narratives.
The hours between 4-6 AM on Fraser Street are quiet with infrequent traffic. It’s my favourite time of the day. The heat isn’t blistering yet and the sky is smudged with greyish pink. There’s also a seemingly meditative-like effortlessness that comes from waking before the morning sun.
4-6 AM also means frequent street run-ins with the participants of the story gathering workshops that I host at The John Howard Society. Usually, these encounters include a brief hello or an exchange of pleasantries.
This time on my work commute I run into Lawrence, a regular workshop participant. He’s usually wandering the streets of Vancouver around 2 or 3 AM because he can’t sleep. In previous conversations, he has told me that he often feels ill in the mornings, as the rising temperatures make him queasy. His room in JHSLM housing is scorching, and I imagine that it’s like being trapped in an oven in summer.
I wave at Lawrence.
“Where you going?” he asks.
“Work,” I reply.
He nods seriously. Then he exclaims: “You can’t do that!”
I pause, unsure of how to respond.
But then his face breaks into a friendly grin. “Just joking, Lindsay!”
Lawrence is clutching a brown paper bag and excitedly tells me that his brother downtown gave him several pieces of leftover bannock. He says he’s going to Tim Hortons later for a muffin and a coffee, and that the Salvation Army hosts a weekly breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs.
Most of our conversations revolve around our mutual interest and memories of food–freshly baked childhood bannock from his mother and grandmother; how he was spanked as a child for chewing with his mouth open; how his mother once let him devour gooey cheese nachos and Twizzlers and jumbo-sized chocolate bars until he was so sick that he swore off junk food for the rest of his life. Another time he once recounted a story about his mother locking him in his bedroom for not eating his dinner or feeding him until he overate.
His stories always sound traumatic and sad; they are stories that repeat a similar narrative of punishment, emotional violence, and childhood hurt. He doesn’t have any happy memories, but I know Lawrence loves to eat.
“I’m going to make some chicken soup and eat some crackers for dinner,” he announces, rubbing his stomach while grimacing. “This heat makes me throw up.”
I tell him to feel better soon, and he says he’ll come to the next story gathering.
We end the conversation with a fistbump.
I hustle to my job.
An article in The Huffington Post states that food is a reminder of our childhood; it can be a bowl of steaming chicken noodle soup or a large slice of greasy pepperoni pizza, sometimes even as simple as double chocolate chip muffin from Costco. No matter the significance, whether happy, sad, or anger-provoking, food memories can be more evocative and vivid than other memories.
According to Susan Whitborne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, “food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect.”
In essence, food memories aren’t just statements or facts, but they are shaped and developed by context—the people surrounding us, the situation, and the overall emotional atmosphere involved.
As a result, the cognitive brain creates a textured narrative surrounding a particular food. When we smell, taste, touch a food or even sample a dish, we are brought back to a singular moment of our childhood.
We remember the most pivotal food stories of our past.
And we take meaning and significance and sometimes nostalgia from these memories.
When I can’t sleep, I walk to work.
Around 4:35 AM, Sam, a movie producer and pool hall owner, is having an outdoors bench meeting with two hulking security guards on the cross-streets of Manitoba and East Broadway. These gentlemen are finishing their night-shift at Sam’s movie studio. Sam has been a frequent visitor of The JHS since his niece became a longtime client.
Sam has connections to both major studio networks and motorcycle gangs.
From several of our former conversations about screenwriting and tattoos, I know that we have a shared addiction to caffeine (five cups of coffee per day for both of us). I know he dislikes vanilla creamer. “Don’t buy it anymore; it ruins the taste of coffee,” he always says whenever I arrange the beverages and snacks on a table before workshop.
As I walk by, I wave, but I don’t stop to chat. I don’t want to interrupt their meeting.
Sam claims that he can never sleep because of his bipolar disorder and an abundance of creative energy. He’s also a fan of the double chocolate chip muffins from No Frills. Sam eats one every Friday when he stops by The JHS for an hour-long breakfast chat.
In fact, workshop participants and staff keep asking me to bring more chocolate muffins to our sessions.
In a recent survey that I conducted, JHS clients and staff love to eat. When I ask the staff, volunteers, clients, and drop-ins about their favourite foods, nearly everyone becomes enthusiastic and chatty.
Workshop participants beam when they discuss their favorites. Patricia enjoys fresh strawberries; Saul likes ham and cheese for a midnight snack. Peter loves freshly baked pepperoni pizza, while Harry prefers Hawaiian and Carson shares his famous recipe for vegetarian chili when asked to disclose his favourite food and childhood memory.
Outreach workers like Samantha smile fondly when discussing a three-course meal at The Cheesecake Factory. Alice reminisces about her family sharing Italian lasagna and bowls of steaming hot spaghetti together at the dinner table, while Monika enthusiastically recalls fun meals with her friends at a Thai restaurant. Others fondly remember romantic dates or high school Europe trips; family birthday dinners at The Keg, Friday night nacho and peanut butter binge sessions, or late-night pho sessions after drinking with a group of buddies at a pub.
Besides chocolate muffins, sushi is an all-time favourite at The JHS: tuna and salmon sashimi and bottles of Japanese beer are the agreed-upon favourites.
Teddy Chan, an employee at JHS, reminisces about how his grandfather owned a souvenir store on Robson Street, a block away from Burrard in the nineties. As a picky child, he disliked food, but there would be a conveyor belt of dishes at one particular Chinese restaurant, and his goal as a child, would be to accumulate as many of the coloured dishes as possible.
It was his grandfather’s ruse of making Teddy eat.
A few minutes later, when Teddy reaches for a chocolate Costco muffin to reheat in the microwave, he tells me that when he was growing up, his mother would cut the oversized muffins in half before freezing them and then reheating them for his Saturday morning breakfast.
I tell him that my parents did the same thing, before driving me to hockey practice.
“It must be a Chinese family thing,” he muses, before heading to the kitchen.
QUESTION FOR READERS: What are your favourite foods? Do they evoke a specific childhood memory? Feel free to leave a comment.
Thanks for reading!
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of participants.