If you want to be a kid again, recreate the good smells you smelled as kid.
The part of the brain involved with scents also deals with memories. (See this UPI.com Health News article “Same brain part deals with scents, memory”) and, as Discovery Health has reported, because we encounter most new odors in our youth, smells often call up powerful childhood memories.
That’s why, when I smell a spring morning, I’m six again, leaving for kindergarten from my grandparents’ house in Longview, Texas.
When I smell hot chocolate, I’m eight, coming in from playing in the snow—or 12, daydreaming by the window on a winter morning—or 17, doing a crossword puzzle by myself on a Saturday night, listening to haunting Celtic music, and mooning over some boy who didn’t love me back.
Yes, food has tremendous power to revive our childhood memories.
The other night, I made my family’s chicken gumbo for the first time since I moved out on my own. As the gumbo simmered, the scent made me recall with sweet clarity how it felt to be a kid. Memories of dozens of family meals, conversations around the table, helping my mom clean up after dinner, all washed over me. And with the first bite, the distance that separates me from my younger self was gone. I felt younger than I have in a long time.
Chris had never had the dish before, but he ate two bowls of it. “This is one of the best things I’ve had in a long time!” he said.
“Brings back memories for me,” I said quietly. And that was an understatement. I was surprised by how happy I felt.
It happens to all of us. I read today that when French memoirist Marcel Proust dipped a pastry into his tea, the distinctive scent it produced suddenly opened the flood gates of his memory. And sometimes, you don’t recall a single memory, but instead find yourself feeling suddenly content.
I am the third generation to make this dish, and it’s tied to special memories for more than just me. My mom tells me she started making this simple gumbo before I was born. She got the recipe from her mother-in-law, my paternal grandmother. Mom first tasted this dish when Dad took her to meet his parents nearly 40 years ago. They drove several hours from Tucson, Ariz., north to Prescott, and Granny served her chicken gumbo to my mom, the thin, 19-year-old girl with the long, blonde hair who was going to marry her son.
This chicken gumbo is easy and quick to make, and it probably doesn’t taste anything like an authentic gumbo you’d find down in Louisiana. Granny did live in Shreveport for a couple of years, but a classic gumbo is a lot more complicated than hers. I’ve only had a real spicy Cajun gumbo once in my life. That’s a memory too. But this simple gumbo is the one for me.
What foods take you back?
Granny’s Chicken Gumbo
This dish offers a good chance to use up some leftovers—you can ladle it over leftover rice or potatoes and possibly day-old pasta. Chris ate his second bowl over a pile of oyster crackers that I bought on a whim because I thought the kids would enjoy eating little octagons.
1 chicken or equivalent in chicken pieces (I used just two boneless skinless chicken breasts)
1 ½ cups chicken broth or stock (a 14-oz can of broth will work fine)
2 T butter or olive oil (I used olive oil)
1 large onion, chopped (I used a shallot)
1 green pepper, chopped
2 Tbsp flour
1 small can tomato sauce
½ Tbsp thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot pepper (optional)
Put chicken in a pot and pour chicken broth over it. Add enough water to cover the chicken pieces. Bring the water to a simmer over high heat, then lower the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling. Cook until the chicken is done, approximately 25–30 minutes for chicken pieces but only 12 minutes for boneless skinless chicken breasts. Remove chicken from the pot; cool and debone. Remove chicken liquid from the heat.
Put butter/olive oil, onion and pepper in a large skillet and sauté until tender. Add flour and brown to nice color. Add chicken liquid, tomato sauce, salt and pepper, and thyme. Shred chicken, add to sauce, and simmer. Add peppers, okra, and Tabasco for a spicier gumbo.
Serve with hot sauce, steamed rice, potatoes, or crackers.