That is no surprise, say food psychologists. The part of your brain that processes smell also processes emotions. A bit like Marcel Proust and his famous madeleine, the mere whiff of a beloved food can take you back to that special time or place.
"It's often called 'smell brain,'" says Marcia Pelchat, associate member at Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center. "Smell brain is also the emotion brain. And odor memories tend to be more emotional than other types of memories."
Bissonnette still makes chili at least twice a month, he says, upscaling his mother's version with seared pork belly, piment d'Espelette and craft beer.
Many Americans associate certain qualities with comfort food, for example, warmth, sweetness, starchiness. But SUNY Buffalo's Gabriel says the perception of something as "comfort food" is very culturally specific.
"For one person it's sushi, for another person it's chicken soup, for another it's lasagna," she says. "Within our work we found the most important thing tended to be what the foods were that you ate when you were a child."
Take the empanadas Magdalena Garces used to make for her son, Jose, a James Beard award-winning chef who presides over an empire of six restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia. Garces still gets lost in the thought of hot, melty cheese swathed in crisp, fried dough and sprinkled with sugar.
"It's just one of those sensations," Garces says. "It brings back a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, probably a cold afternoon, watching a Bears football game, and my mom making empanadas that we'd eat at half time. It brings me back to a good place, to a good time in my life."
Marcela Valladolid's comfort food involves a big, fiery splat of hot sauce. Valladolid's mom, Lucha Rodriguez, was a formidable cook of all the Mexican classics — posole, enchiladas, chili rellenos. But more than anything, Valladolid says she still craves the simple quesadillas her late mother laid in front of her each morning.
"She would cut it into triangles, and I would pour a whole bunch of hot sauce on the plate, dip the quesadilla and eat it," she says. "That was my breakfast my entire life. That was comfort food for me."
Sometimes a mom's cooking — for better or worse — is the reason a person becomes a chef. Bissonnette realized early that if he wanted to eat well, he'd have to cook for himself, he says, and he credits his mom "a thousand percent" with inspiring him, however dubiously, to his profession. In contrast, Jacqueline Winch, mom to "Ace of Cakes" Duff Goldman, was a skilled and adventurous cook, her son says, and her beef fondue is the dish that made him a chef.
"The biggest memory, the first thing I think of when I think of dinners at home as a child, is beef fondue," Goldman says, recalling the way he experimented with temperature, cooking times, and skewering techniques around the communal fondue pot. "That process — discovering that I could alter what I'm eating to suit my taste — at that young of an age stuck with me."
When these chefs cook in their restaurants, they are performers, public figures being judged, weighed, called out, praised. But at home, many of them are simply moms and dads, creating food memories for their own children the way their moms did for them.
Prune's Hamilton suspects her two children will remember — though perhaps not fondly — parmesan omelets, which she confesses to serving for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not usually all in the same day). Valladolid makes her 7-year-old son an organic version of the quesadillas she grew up on. But perhaps no one is recreating childhood food memories for his children as closely as Garces.
That's because his mom lives around the corner and cooks for his kids every day. And what does she often make? Those very same empanadas that her son loved.
"I think their fondest food memories will be the meals my mom has cooked for them," he says. "When I see her with my kids, and see her in the kitchen, it brings me back to my childhood."
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