What is your Christmas smell? Mine is cinnamon. At that time of year, it seems to spill off the table and into every bowl and dried fruit it can dust itself over. Inhaling that once seems to bring up a whole host of inter-connected memories, though. The apples for the cake are stewing in cinnamon and sugar, the dried oranges hang over the door in their cages; the coffee is black and steaming, the cherries are soaked in alcohol and melted dark chocolate and the marzipan is gently rolled in cocoa powder – and it’s mine, because nobody else wants it. These tastes and smells on the air carry with them those minute details – the china, the wrought-silver sugar spoons, the cream tablecloth, the buttercup glow of the lightbulb.
There cannot be anything more evocative than food – or, specifically, the communal act of eating. It combines all those senses we are told are the most sensitive – touch, smell, and, of course, taste – and quickly and irreversibly ties them to a recipe we can easily follow again, unearthing those feelings and memories through the simple act of eating a cake you ate once when you were a child. A bowl of warm banana and custard, painstakingly heated just enough for comfort but not enough to burn the roof of my over-eager mouth, always brings me back to sitting at my grandpa’s left with a cup of similarly-prepared Ovaltine in the early winter evening as he proclaims himself ‘king of the custard.’ Leek and potato soup is my Opa at the stove as my cousins and I sit beneath the overhead lamp, kicking each other under the table as we wait for it to be served in little blue and white bowls through which the light shines when you hold it up.
There are little moments contained in every step of construction. Each of us cousins took turns learning how to make strudel with our Oma, dousing the apple in lemon juice and evenly distributing the sultanas over the translucent pastry. My grannie taught me how to make her famous quiche, pressing down the shortcrust into the glass dish she uses specially for it. The act of preparing food links us to our parents, our grandparents, and their own parents, passing down the broader strokes of the cultures that produce us, yes – but also the tweaks they’ve made; their own signature dishes. More honey and cumin on the carrots; heavy on the lemon juice; a mix of garlic and ginger can’t go wrong. A family favourite brings those memories of holidays and celebrations rushing back to you; you mingle new experiences to the old ones through sharing your own tricks and recipes with your friends.
Right now, we can’t see our families and our friends in the same way as we used to. I was out walking my dog the other day, though, and I saw a woman in gloves passing a tupperware crammed full of cupcakes over the fence to her masked granddaughter. If you don’t live near your loved ones, try cooking up a dish you make with them, or a meal you shared when you were all together. Look for the flavour that will bring them back to you.