Tuesday, 27 January 2015

You’ve lost that curry feeling: smell, memory and food research

Posted by Duika Burges-Watson

Grant Achatz, a survivor of head and neck cancer and one of the world’s most adventurous chefs, serves a dish in his Chicago restaurant Alinea that frequently makes people cry. Why would pheasant with shallots, cider and burning oak leaves do this and why should we care about some zizzy restaurant food? The principle is based on a neurological fact – our olfactory system is linked directly to the amygdala-hippocampus complex – the ‘substrate of emotional memory’ (Herz 2004, Soudry et al 2011). Research shows that autobiographical memories evoked by odour are significantly more emotional than those recalled with visual cues. It is sometimes called the Proust phenomenon – after a literary anecdote involving a Madeline biscuit and the recall of a powerful childhood memory. In Achatz’s restaurant, burning oak leaves are not eaten - they take you straight to the excitement of autumn.

Pheasant with shallots, cider and burning oak leaves

In the Fuse-led NIHR/RFPB-funded head and neck cancer ‘Resources for Living’ project, we have been running food play workshops to explore the potential of modern cooking techniques and ideas to improve survivors' eating and experience of food . In our workshop next week we are talking curry – it’s what many survivors have told us they miss the most.
As one of our survivors said:

The first meal I ever had with my husband was a curry. I had never been to an Indian restaurant until he took me in the early eighties. I couldn't believe the aroma the flavours and textures. He said he'd never seen anyone so small eat so much. I was hooked!

I used to hate it when people ordered their own curry and rice and put it all on their plate and didn't share. I liked to try a bit of everything to experience all the different tastes and textures. However I didn't like anything too hot and spicy. I found that too much heat from spice destroyed the rich flavours. So a Madras or anything hotter just seemed to lose taste.

The only thing I can eat now in an Indian restaurant is a bit of poppadum. It's a killer, watching my husband and daughter getting stuck in to a really delicious curry on the curry mile and me sitting with a glass of water. Help!

We will be using knowledge about food and memory, clever cooking skills and some of what social science can offer on food and eating, to create, and explore, a curry experience that cancer survivors can participate in. Curry is, after all, more than about the physical experience of eating. It’s where many Brits get to feel Britishness (speaking here as an Australian we do something similar with South East Asian food). We socialise around take-outs and eat-ins. Curry is also pretty intensely flavoursome, spicy and exciting to eat.

We knew when we started the ‘Resources for Living’ work that our research would have resonance beyond this patient group - head and neck cancer survivors have problems with chewing, swallowing, sore mouths, throat narrowing and damage, taste alterations, smell function decline and more (in various combinations) so their experiences are particularly relevant to understanding how we can cope with altered eating difficulties (think loss of taste and smell in ageing, neurological damage etc). But even for so called ‘normal’ eaters there is interest here. For starters (excuse the pun), do people with ‘normal’ eating habits talk about the relationship between food and emotion, food and thinking? This could be a component of food literacy, particularly in the context of modern manufacturing processes where odours can be created at will. Just think of the experience of supermarket shopping near the bakery section. Does the emotional trickery of circulating the odour of baking bread get you to buy more high fat/salt/sugar foods that you don’t need?

As people age, altered taste sensation can lead to all manner of new habits around food – how might the experience of smell be employed to re-engage those that have lost interest in food? Another example: taste disturbance amongst smokers is well documented; why don’t we employ food therapy to increase desire for a more flavoursome smoke-free life?

Remembering an odour memory yet? Perhaps not, but next time you are transported to a sweet childhood memory, perhaps you’ll notice the smell of it.

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