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In Eating with My Mouth Open, Australian writer Sam van Zweden explores food, culture, memory and hunger. This is an edited extract from the book.
My first food memory is of strawberry cream chocolates. In fact, this is my first memory of anything at all.
Memory can serve as a kind of tally - a scorecard adding up the points, assuring us of who we are. We know our own identities, and feel certain of them because memory stacks up in corroboration. Imbued with great importance, our first memory is the prime mover.
I remember standing in the hall near the kitchen, the cork cool under my feet. I wore a thin nightgown, and the cat pawed at my bare ankles. In my hands I held the chocolates, which came from my brother. They were arranged in a heart-shaped box, and were individually wrapped in bright pink foil. I felt precious and loved.
There are some stories my family tell again and again - like any family, we have stories we recognise from their very first words. There’s a Dutch word, gezellig, which English fails to translate. Gezellig sits somewhere between cosy and comfortable, and it’s related to keeping warm, friendly company. My family’s stories are gezellig - they are about where we have come from and where we are going. They are the mythology that we balance upon - and like all myths, they exist to explain how the world works. The immovable order of things.
There’s an unspoken contract within my family about which stories are to be uttered, and which we don’t mention, ever. The minute someone gets uncomfortable, we stop talking. We are what we repeatedly do, and as an adult, I lean towards silence when things hurt or confuse me.
Instead, we focus on the tasty things. Discomfort is bitter and difficult to swallow. So we don’t: we spit it out. It doesn’t make the menu.
The French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne said: "My conscience does not falsify one tittle; what my ignorance may do, I cannot say". North American essayist David Lazar says of the whole question of truth: "It maketh me nervous". Me too. I’ve asked about the strawberry creams, to be safe, but nobody else in the family remembers them. Does that make this an unsafe story? It doesn’t feel unsafe, it feels gezellig.
I took the foil off the chocolate as carefully as my three-year-old motor skills allowed, leaving only small tears in it. Looking back now, I wonder how reliable my memory is. There’s a possibility that I actually butchered the neat, perfect foil wrappers in my eagerness to get at the chocolate inside.
The small size of the chocolates from my brother made them more special. I remember holding the box and their smell, but not the moment when the chocolates were gone. I mean, of course - why would I? Such a moment must have come.
As soon as I put a sweet, all-mine chocolate into my mouth I began to lose that gift from my brother. I guess this is what they mean when they say that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. I was left only with the reflex that kicks at my memory when I smell strawberry flavouring; my careful selection of the strawberry chocolate from a Snack block or chocolate box; and the fondness I still have for smoothing out chocolate foils.
That fascinates me - the knock-on effect of one memory to another. I once read about a study where researchers used mice in a maze to explore the idea of "associated memories". Playing a tone to the mice before administering an electric shock, the researchers found that the mice learned to associate the two. The mice froze in fear on hearing the tone, anticipating the electric shock that would surely follow.
Next, the researchers played the tone again, and administered an amnesia-inducing drug at the moment the mice remembered the shock. The next time the tone was played, the mice were unfazed. Removing the last memory of the electric shock removed all memories of the shock. Subsequent and follow-up research has confirmed this finding in more nuanced ways. What this provides for memory theory is some proof that when we remember something, we’re actually remembering the last time we recalled that thing. This is how memories morph over time, through an elaborate game of whispers that we speak to ourselves.
Neuroscientist Yadin Dudai suggests that keeping original memories intact is close to impossible. "If you have a memory", he says, "the more you use it, the more you are likely to change it ... The safest memories are the memories which are in the brain of people who cannot remember" - but I can remember, and I’ve been thinking on this strawberry creams memory all my life. Every other memory I have spins forth from this one.
These chocolates are the first present I remember receiving; the first thing I’m conscious of owning all for myself - a gift of food from my brother. We repeat this action again and again, he and I, until our adult relationship is almost entirely based around giving and receiving food, tasting and critiquing, trying novel things. He wants me to taste his duck ravioli; to tell him I enjoy it; to acknowledge that he has made this for me. I watch as he fusses the rocket around my plate and positions the pasta with sculptural flourish. I know that he’s been more particular with my plate than he has with the others. I am cared for.
If I were to visit my three-year-old self and remove that strawberry cream chocolate, what about my life might be different? Would I still know, unshakably, that my brother loves me? Would we both still be giving each other food gifts all these years later?
Considering her own first memory, Virginia Woolf said that "if life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills - then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory". I imagine my life as a marble bowl, hefty and wide, which teeters on a tiny, pink foil-wrapped chocolate.