How Taste Sparks Memory

Published Feb 25, 2022

If you’ve ever heard the term “Madeleine moment,” you’ll know it speaks to those memories locked away in your subconscious, the ones that come alive with a flicker of recognition.

Originating in (French writer) Marcel Proust’s classic “In Search of Lost Time,” the term has come to be associated with what’s known as involuntary memory. A sub-component of memory, involuntary memory occurs when we stumble upon something in our everyday life that sparks recollection. Usually, these moments stop us in our tracks, taking us back to times, places, and periods of our lives that feel distant. Such as is the case with taste memories. 

As its name suggests, a taste memory is a memory brought forth by the taste of something. It might be the pure sweetness of a summer strawberry pulling you back to your grandmother’s garden and the smell of wet dirt. Or the linger of Pinot Noir bringing forth a leisurely dinner in the crisp air of the Italian Alps. Each of us has our own taste memories, collected by influences over our lives. 

You might recall the crustless sandwich your mom packed in your lunch as a child, the exact amount of mayonnaise and mustard she added. Or the milkshakes of our youth, enjoyed in the days when we could get away with whatever we felt like eating, whenever we felt like eating it. Thanksgiving and holidays set up roots, as do things we experience in our travels. Often without knowing it, we pass these tastes down to our children and families as they gather, our subconscious itching to share these treasured experiences.

In this way, taste memories become a powerful association and means of connection. They bring stories and transport us to another time and place. They get passed down through generations. They instill in us the importance of food and how we experience it. And they make us want to hold onto all that’s beautiful.