It’s interesting how nostalgias are passed down through generations. And it’s significant how strong a reminder food is of the stories that go with it. Growing up, mom would occasionally buy this bizarre tubular food, Boston Brown Bread, known to me as “brown bread in a can.” She bought it because it reminded her of her childhood, and perhaps in some way she wanted to confirm to her olfactory senses that they still had their stuff together and her memories were indeed accurate.
Olfactory memories are certainly some of the most powerful ones. We only had it a handful of times when I was a child, and yet the sweet, warm squishy circles of molassessy goodness still had my mother’s story attached to them, so as they went down, bite by bite, into my belly, the memories got put into a deeper, more secure memory file on my internal hard drive. Every experience, though they were relatively few, added a new layer of olfactory nostalgic encryption, locking the smell, the texture, the taste bud response, and the memory of my mom and how she loves to weave a story, into place.
A few weeks ago as I was walking through the grocery store with all my boys a can of bread jumped into my field of vision and suddenly I could smell it. I could hear my mother telling me how she used to eat it. Maybe it was a treat, maybe she had it often. I really don’t remember every detail. I just remember she attached a special memory to it, so my own memory of it was attached to her childhood memory of it. This chain of nostalgia meant that for me the canned bread did not live in the same filing cabinet as regular bread or even special baked goods like cookies and cakes, where the memory of making them or the events surrounding them is stronger than the taste or smell. It was buried a little deeper than those memories stored nearer to the surface due to the frequency with which I have accessed them over the years.
But when I saw the brown bread on the shelf, my olfactory memories made a rush to the appropriate synapses and soon that old file was dusted off and opened like a can of brown bread, the attached story rushing out as quickly as the unmistakable aroma. I had to have it because not only did I need to enjoy the reminiscences of eating it and thinking about my mom, I needed my boys to eat it… simply because I used to eat it. Maybe that’s why my grandma gave it to my mom? Perhaps, when Grandma Hersey was growing up on the raisin farm in Fresno, Great Grandma Mulligan would put a few more raisins in before she steamed it fresh in her own coffee can? Maybe Great Grandma Mulligan remembered the melting butter on the perfectly circular warm discs of bread too. Whatever the actual stories attached that may only pass to a single generation, it’s entirely possible that these olfactory stories go back to our family roots in Massachusetts, where the New England staple first came into being. And now my kids will have this odd little cylindrical loaf ingrained in their own memories like the lines of the can on the bread.
I don’t really know if this bread has that many generations of nostalgia attached to it. But I do know that when you’ve tasted something special, even if it’s something as basic as bread from a can, and there is a story with it… you want to share it with your children, maybe even with your friends.
There was a man named Jesus. He once shared a meal with his friends. It was a meal associated with a long-shared generational story, the details of which were never lost, more carefully preserved than the olfactory memories attached to it. His friends had eaten that meal with their kinfolk every year of their lives. They had stories of suffering and freedom intermingled with their own family memories all wrapped around and entwined with the fibers of grain that made up that bread. So when Jesus held up that bread and said to them that this bread that they had been eating since before they could speak in memory of something that seemed light years past was actually about him… that they were henceforth to attach new memories and new stories to its relevance in their lives, that this bread and wine were not just ways to remember what no one living could actually remember, but to remember and proclaim a new story of freedom, their minds must have been blown. That file on their internal hard drives was pulled out and rearranged and given a whole new meaning, or rather the original meaning finally made sense. It had always been a freedom meal. It had always signified utter reliance on another for salvation. It had always said to them, “Eat now! For now is the hour of salvation!” Jesus was telling his friends that same thing. “This is me,” he told them… “I am your salvation. I am the bread of life. Remember me, yes… but also subsist on me alone. And in so doing you are telling the whole world this freedom story. Eat and remember.”