Creamed-Shrimp-On- Toast–The Magic of Memory

On a recent visit to my favourite seafood market, I spotted a bag of miniature frozen shrimp. Their tiny size evoked a powerful childhood memory–creamed-shrimp-on-toast. I paused, closed my eyes, tasted the velvety concoction and relished the rare treat. Into my basket I tossed the delicacy.

A few days later, finding myself alone at suppertime, I decided to revisit that glorious meal.

I suspect that Mother had heated a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup–our pantry had an ample supply–added milk then thrown in a tin of baby shrimp. She would have poured the mixture over toasted white bread. Culinary complexity was not my mother’s forte.

A can of soup has not occupied my larder for many years. So, I created a rich bechamel sauce with organic butter, a little spelt flour and goat’s milk. I tossed in a dash of Chef Guy’s seafood spice mix–gluten free and made in PEI. The baby shrimp came next. I wondered, were they really babies or do some varieties of that crustacean simply never grow large? A few lobster pieces left over from a previous dinner joined the mix. Sprouted organic whole grain toast formed the base. Brilliant. Buttery rich with a delicate tang. But, not like Mom’s. Disappointment dulled the joy of my own much healthier recipe.

The letdown puzzled me. Were all happy childhood memories like that? Too good to be reproduced? Perhaps the old version tasted so wonderful because my mother convinced me it was rare and special. On the other hand, it may have something to do with the way our brains remember things.

Richard Jerome writes: “Odor-evoked autobiographical memories derive their power from the way they are processed in the brain“.

The same author goes on to state:

The olfactory system is the only sensory apparatus that does not feed its incoming signals through the thalamus–one of the brain’s major relay systems. Rather, scents and tastes are directly connected to the limbic system, a collection of brain structures important for emotion, behavior, motivation and memory.

Although the sight of the shrimp called forth the memory, the magic happened when I smelled and tasted it in my imagination. That experience recalled other favourite childhood foods. Once in a while, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies awaited my arrival from school. Warm and soft and gooey and sweet beyond marvellous. Like the shrimp, the cookies were special. Usually, chunks of celery their cavities stuffed with Cheese Whiz or slices of apple smeared with peanut butter greeted me. Do mothers still prepare after-school snacks? I suspect most of them work outside the home now. Favourite childhood food memories must be forged in other ways.

We inhabit an astonishingly vivid visual world that is often crowded with a cacophony of sounds. As a result, we tend to downplay our other senses. But, when we remember, the pleasures of the past are most often elicited by odours and tastes. Research demonstrates that those delightful sensory experiences most often occurred in our first decade but sometimes into adolescence. Some of mine include:

The smell of the house where I grew up. I step inside the back door after having been away at Girl Guide camp. I stop to inhale. “You’re home” the smell assures me.

The incense that infuses the interior of an Eastern Orthodox church. As I arrive for a funeral, a sweetly pungent fragrance entices me further into the nave. I secretly wish that my church smelled so spiritual. Years later the aroma of smoldering sweet grass wafting over me at a smudging ceremony conjures that same sacred feeling.

The Tide scent that lingers in the freshly-washed shirt of my first real boyfriend. Today I use an environmentally friendly, unscented laundry detergent. No romantic aroma there.

Onions and garlic sauteing. A Thanksgiving turkey roasting. Evergreens. The ocean. Lilies-of-the-valley. Lilacs. Shoe polish. Newly-mown grass. Irish Spring soap. Motor boats starting. Primordial forests. Cinnamon sticks. Babies.

According to Jerome, “Scent memories pack a more potent emotional wallop than recollections triggered by sights, sounds and other sensory cues”. Even so, had I not espied that bag of tiny pink crustaceans, I would have missed this happy opportunity for reminiscences fragrant and flavourful.

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