I’ve always been interested in the way that smell is tied to memory. Whether you catch a whiff of a perfume on a bus and remember your first love or the scent of your grandmother’s go-to pasta dish is in the air at a restaurant, a smell can spark memories that have long been collecting dust in the back corners of your brain.
There’s actually a scientific reason for this: when you smell something, scents bypass the thalamus (where other senses go), and head straight to the olfactory bulb (or as Discovery dubs it, the “smell center”). That olfactory bulb is actually attached to both the amygdala and the hippocampus, two places where memories are stored – which is why a smell can bring up a memory or a well of emotions.
What if I could use specific smells to bring back lost memories of my late loved ones?
As The Harvard Gazette reports, this process has its very own name: the Proustian moment. The name comes from a moment in Marcel Proust’s renowned 1913 novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, where a piece of cake in his tea floods not only his mouth, but his mind with childhood memories.
So recently, I began to wonder: what if I could use this to my advantage? What if I could use specific smells to bring back lost memories of my late loved ones?
I also realized that cooking and sharing food with family really stood at the centre of my core memories, from eating breakfast with my late grandfather to heading to my uncle’s childhood home to indulge in some lasagna from scratch. So, if I could replicate and perfect specific recipes that remind me of someone I lost, would I then remember things I’ve forgotten? And how would that make me feel?
Honing in on a memory
My grandfather was always very special to me. I was born in Montreal, where he lived, but my family moved to the GTA when I was young – so we didn’t get to spend as much time together as we would have liked to. But, growing up, he would call me every day and listen to me talk for hours about what crafts I made, the lunch I had and drama between my friends at school.
When I was a kid, my grandfather owned a donut shop located inside of a train station in Dorval. I can remember when I would visit him and he’d stomp around in the early hours of the morning to (not-so-subtly) wake me up so that I could sit on the table across from him as he ate his breakfast. Then, after heading to the shop to serve up some donuts to customers on their early morning commute, he’d get back home with a treat for me in his back pocket.
When I greeted him, he’d smile and pop out his fake teeth – which never failed to make me laugh – and then he would hand me a freshly baked cherry donut, wrapped in a brown paper bag. He’d take it and warm it up for me over the stove, and in the summer months he’d bring it outside with us onto their deck, which looked over their backyard. I’d savour the steaming hot treat for all of two minutes before devouring it (I did have a child-sized patience level) and then we would work on the morning crossword together. Well, he’d work on the morning crossword and I would finish up a word search, thinking it was the same.
So, I figured my best shot at using food to spark memories was by trying to replicate that fresh, delightful cherry donut from my childhood.
Finding the perfect recipe
The hunt for a cherry donut recipe was no easy task. I spent hours sifting through recipe after recipe, as each one had its own twist.
Everything I found was wrong. The donut my grandfather made had too many stipulations for a pre-prepared recipe. It had to have real cherries, not maraschino ones. I don’t remember it having a glaze, but if it did, it was ever-so subtle. And the fresh, moist donut was baked, not fried.
So, I decided to make my own by combining a few recipes and what little baking knowledge I have.
Baking the cherry donuts
After gathering supplies and hunting down a donut tray, I was ready to get started. There were a few hurdles while grocery shopping, especially considering all of the stores near me were out of cherries. So, instead of using fresh cherries, I used frozen sour cherries, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise considering they were my grandfather’s favourite.
I put on some music from one of his favourite artists, Johnny Cash, and I started baking. As I was chopping up the thawed cherries, I got really emotional. I started tearing up, realizing I hadn’t had a cherry donut since before he passed away when I was 10. The smell of the chopped cherries alone brought tears to my eyes, and I couldn’t help but pop a cherry in my mouth.
In that moment, memories came flooding back. As I let the tiny, tart cherry melt in my mouth, I could remember him sitting on the back deck in his quintessential wire frame glasses, sucking on a cherry and spitting out a pit through laughter on a hot summer’s day. While he finished his crossword, I would play in the back, watering the plants and running through a Crazy Daisy flower sprinkler.
The smell of the chopped cherries alone brought tears to my eyes
After taking a quick break to recoup, I finished making the dough and popped the donuts in the oven, letting the smell waft through my apartment. Everything felt immersive, and it almost felt like I was moving through two spaces, two times at once.
As I pulled the donuts out of the oven, I felt I was also pulling a sunflower from their garden. As I dressed the donuts with a light sour cherry glaze, I felt as though I was also slathering paint across a paint-by-number – my favourite craft to do at my grandparents’ house. And, as I took a bite of a freshly glazed donut in my tiny Toronto kitchen, I felt as though I was also sitting across from my grandfather at their dining table, where he’d sit with his hand in his white hair, glasses at the tip of his nose, frustrated over the crossword.
It truly felt transformative, as if I could use the favourite foods of my loved ones to bring me back to a specific moment in time.
Ultimately, I don’t feel that my Proustian moment allowed me to remember anything new, but I could picture it all so vividly and for a moment I felt more connected to my grandfather than I had for the entirety of the last 17 years. If there’s one thing I learned through this process, it’s that no matter how many years have passed, a smell or a taste can let you travel through time – and I’ll be using cooking to help me stay connected to the ones I’ve lost for years to come.