The Power of Smells: can food make us remember?

  • Post last modified:June 12, 2024

A Festival of Ideas Fringe Family Fun Afternoon Activity

by Ben Davenport, PhD Candidate

Food is powerful stuff. More than just providing us with nutrition and energy, foods can have important symbolic and cultural significance. Food practices and preferences are an important part of our cultural heritage. Food can be one of the ways that we define who we are, and the smell of food can, at times, provoke vivid memories of places or people. 

On Saturday, 9 June 2024, I joined researchers from across the University of York to share our research with members of the public at the Festival of Ideas Fringe Family Fun Afternoon. I challenged children and adults visiting the event to guess the identity of six different food smells and prompted them to share the memories and associations these smells stimulated.

Table in front of blue stand with six large boxes on it, each with a sheet and small coloured box
The Festival of Ideas Fringe Family Fun Afternoon. Ron Cooke Hub, University of York.

The smells provoked a range of reactions, from suspicion, to reminiscence, to disgust, demonstrating the visceral ways we engage with and respond to food. In sharing their food memories and associations, participants showed how powerful food related memories are and how diverse the connections we make with foods can be.

Milk Chocolate

For several people the smell of chocolate reminded them of York. Sometimes called the chocolate city and the home of chocolate makers like Terry’s and Rowntree’s, the city has long had an association with this sweet treat. Other people connected the smell of chocolate with certain times of day: weekends, after-school, holidays. 

Roast Beef

This smell was hard to pin down for some people but lots of participants unsurprisingly recalled Sunday or Christmas lunches. For some it reminded them of certain people, like one person who recalled happy memories of their grandmother’s kitchen. Not everyone likes the smell, however. Those who are vegan or vegetarian might have responded in less positive terms to this smell as some of the responses recorded above suggest.

Pineapple

Nostalgic memories are usually connected with positive recollections of childhood. The smell of pineapple for some brought to mind images of sweet shops, pick-and-mix, and jellybeans. For others, the tropical scent recalled holiday cocktails. Food tastes and preferences vary across cultures and the foods we encounter in childhood influence our food choices as adults and the memories we associate with them. 

Blue Cheese

This smell divided participants and sometimes families. For some people blue cheese was a favourite food or a bit of a luxury reserved for special occasions. Others couldn’t stand the smell. For one participant the smell reminded them of one very particular place, Leicestershire, a childhood home and the home of Stilton cheese. 

 

As well as being a lot of fun the afternoon really demonstrated that food is always more than fuel. The choices we make in relation to food can say a lot about us. As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an early nineteenth century French lawyer and politician said in his book ‘The Physiology of Taste’, ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are’ – a phrase now often related in English as ‘You are what you eat!’