A comfort food is one that brings a person back to a memory, feeling, or place in time. Have you ever had an experience where you smell something and suddenly, you’re mentally transported to a past memory? When smelling chocolate chip cookies, for example, one might be transported to a memory of being at their grandparent’s house or baking with mom in the kitchen. Comfort foods help a person have a feeling of contentment and lock in moment in time with a scent memory.
The sense of smell has an incredible way to evoke emotion, as well as memories from the past. When you experience a scent, it is quickly sent to the limbic system, where we process behavioral and emotional responses. When a smell is experienced, it is processed in the front portion of the brain called the olfactory bulb. This is a neighbor to the amygdala and hippocampus region related to emotion and memory. Basically, being neighbors in the brain is why many scientists have suggested the brain associates smells with memories and emotion. How can we use this information in daily life? Make scent memories.
At different times in life, I have experienced how the sense of smell brings back memories. For example, when I have flown commercially, the soap many airlines use in their bathrooms on the airplane has a fresh peach-like smell to it. This reminds me of the thrill of flying on my first flight on a commercial airliner when I was six years old. It was a happy memory. I recall sitting in my window seat, peering outside at the friendly, fluffy clouds. As I fly with my own children now, I make a new scent memory with this unique smell. I lock in the memory with the feeling of joy I have taking the children on adventures in the air. They all want a window seat and I grin, remembering my own first adventure by air looking out the window.
Another memory I have associated with scents is my favorite comfort food. I grew up cooking easy box meals. I was by no means a gourmet chef, but I was proud when I made a simple meal successfully. One of my personal favorite comfort foods is beef flavored Ramen Noodles. Yup. A simple package of pasta. Growing up, my older brother would often make these for a quick meal. The nostalgic feeling of childhood simplicity seeps into my soul when I make this food. It was a simple time, sitting on the stool next to my brother, enjoying the sun beaming in the window. It seems like time stood still then in that memory. Now, as I make a bowl of this pasta, I find myself in my own home, mom of three children, and far from the memory of sunshine and childhood. But somehow, I feel like it was not that long ago. I reminisce fondly on that time in my life.
Another way to make a scent memory is to incorporate scents that are stress relieving and calming into your life. Whether you like to diffuse essential oils, or just love some fresh herbs or spices, finding a way to incorporate them into your life have benefits on many levels. For example, spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom have incredible benefits to your brain and emotional self because of their ability to help create a positive mood, decrease tension, increase focus, and more. Maybe this is why some of my favorite hot beverages are chai tea or cinnamon hot chocolate because of the spices and scents. Adding just a pinch of cinnamon to my hot chocolate takes me back to two memories. One is when I was on a canoe trip in high school and we had cinnamon hot chocolate on a cold morning when we were camping in Minnesota. The other memory is when I was first married and we lived in Oklahoma. The small house we rented felt like I lived in a tiny cottage right out of the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The insulation in the walls was terrible and the wind seemed to blow right into the tiny home. We often made hot chocolate often on a cold day and I mixed up the recipe by adding a pinch of cinnamon to enjoy a different variety of the warm beverage.
Another way to incorporate smells into life is as a sense of healing. Recently, I worked on a scent memory to incorporate healing from a hardship I have experienced. Coffee has mostly been a good scent memory for me. However, there was a time in life where I went through some health difficulties and had to completely give up caffeine. At this time, the smell of coffee brought up the feeling of hardship for me. It reminded me of other times in life where life was hard and the smell became difficult for me to associate good feelings with. Since there seems to be a coffee shop on nearly every corner, I wanted to find a way to create positive memories with coffee again. I was determined to create a new scent memory. I thought long and hard about what I enjoyed about the smell of coffee. One morning, it came to me; flying was my happy memory with this smell. I felt like I had come up with a great memory that would produce an epic Patronus from the Harry Potter books. I used to wake up early, crisp morning to go to work at the airport, drink my coffee while I completed the morning airport inspection or while I was flying with a student. The smell of coffee will now be locked in with a positive memory, as I have worked hard to shed hardship associated with the smell previously. I found that by replacing a hard memory with a good one, I have been able to move past a hardship in my life and move forward with more positivity and joy. Now, I can enjoy the rich smell of coffee with new memories.
I wonder what my children will lock into their scent memories. While my children have not yet come to appreciate my favorite comfort food, I hope that someday they will fondly look back on the memories of their own childhood. I wonder what scents will bring back memories. Will it be the memory of drinking hot chocolate on a cold day, the smell of banana bread baking in the oven, or maybe the smell of pine trees from our days spent camping in the woods? Whatever those scents are, I hope that they look back on many years spent together baking in the kitchen, enjoying hot chocolate parties, and snuggling on the couch watching a movie.
What are some of your comfort foods? What smells make you nostalgic for a time in your life?