Scientists believe that taste and memory are inextricably bound. Studies have led them to the conclusion that our brains can recognize a specific flavor and make an immediate deep brain connection to a buried memory. Maybe I need more variety in my diet…
I have a terrible memory. I can structure ideas and retain information but ask me who I was with on such-and-such a day and I am at a loss. My ex-wife excels at this, so it has caused more than a few challenging conversations. In fact this summer she made a pilgrimage to Minnesota to reconnect with many of those memories she retains, and when she returned, she brought me a very thoughtful gift. Salty Licorice.
I am definitely in the minority when it comes to my appreciation for licorice, but salty licorice takes what is already a lesser candy and launches it into oblivion. Here’s the thing, I have never had salty licorice; at least that’s what I thought. I popped a couple in my mouth and did not react well. It offers a salty, sweet, anise combo that was unexpected and not really a normal answer for a sweet-tooth craving. It was a nice gesture to bring them as a gift, but honestly, it was not what I expected, so I put the little bag away.
A couple of weeks later I tried one again. This time I laid one on my tongue and left it there. This was a different experience. The flavors have time to linger, and I found that I really enjoyed it. But the really strange thing that happened was it unlocked a memory that was very old and hidden away.
I had eaten salty licorice before.
When I was five years old, my family took a trip to see my grandparents who lived near Trenton New Jersey. It’s the first road trip I remember. It was an opportunity to explore a new place and a long visit meant plenty of time to kick around. I remember accompanying my grandmother into town one day and getting to experience the ultimate freedom. She led me into a huge candy store and said, “pick whatever you want.” That has a paralyzing effect on a child. The sudden rush of possibilities left me like a deer in the headlights. I don’t remember the selection process, but I do remember being cajoled into picking something because granny was ready to go. I picked a bag of glossy licorice candies shaped like coins. What happened after that was always a mystery to me. It was a hazy kind of weirdness, but I remember that try as I might I could not eat those licorice candies. It’s not clear, but the horror was set in my mind as a perfectly good bag of candy was left uneaten and ultimately thrown away. That made an impression.
I remembered the whole episode as a series of pictures and never really gave them much thought until the salty licorice. It was like someone took the card catalog dumped it on the floor and put everything back in place. At five years old I couldn’t read and made a panicked decision to grab a bag of salty licorice. My grandmother didn’t know me well enough to steer me clearly and may have thought I liked it.
The whole scene coalesced all at once. That flavor-induced memory brought order to a hidden collection of randomness. It was truly a lightbulb moment for me. When I told my wife the story she listened nodded and then went back to whatever she was doing, but I had experienced a revelation.
Waistline be damned; I have work to do. Who knows what other memories are in there just waiting to be jostled out by a long-lost flavor.