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Sensory Memory in Space

Introduction

After my semester in EALC 345 “Everything but the Table, Food and Culture East Asian Literature and Film,” I have discerned how food can be considered as a marker of individual identity, collective memory, and social hierarchy; as a product of gender and religious traditions; and also as a part of migration and movement. I am particularly interested in the investigation on how food, as an element of the material world, embodies and organizes our relationships with the past in socially significant ways. The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, allowing us to relate to the private and collective memories safely contained within it. There is also a strong connection between memory and the spatial dimension of food, especially with regard to our sense of the dining space.

In my final portfolio, I will examine the interwoven themes of memory and space in relation to food practices, citing examples from my four projects for this course (Cooking project, Creative project, Mapping project, and Foodstuffs project) as well as relevant theoretical readings. My central analysis will be the study of food in the age of supermodernity, when the blossoming of excessive space and food services blocks us from forming a clear sensory memory. I argue that despite the ambiguity of the spatial concept, we always find ways to invest meaning and significance into the places that we occupy and thus consciously construct our dining memories in a novel fashion.

Food and Anthropological Place: Moving between Historical and Modern Memory

Food functions as a powerful device to evoke personal and collective memories, especially when its physical presence is in a space that closely ties to notions of history, identity, and relations. Such a space can be defined as an anthropological place, which is redolent of history, constitutes the identity of its inhabitants, and builds a relationship between the individual and the space. Throughout the semester, I have explored how memory is embedded in anthropological places, especially with regard to the Chinese diaspora food experience in Chinatown, both past and present. One project that corresponds to my interest in sensory memory is the cooking assignment, in which my group recreated the chicken dish called Moo Goo Gai Pan based on an examination of Lin Yutang’s 1938 novel Chinatown Family. This novel tells the culinary experience of a Chinese family (the Fong family) that settled in the United States during the Chinese Exclusion Act. While this family had the economic opportunity to achieve their American dream, they faced the risk of losing their family bond—a very important value in Chinese traditions. To strengthen the family relationship, they cooked and ate dinner together every day to preserve the memories of their home cuisine. They also established the Fong restaurant in Chinatown, a place filled with the history of Chinese immigrants. In serving representative Chinese dishes, the Fongs allow other people of similar backgrounds to engage in a mutual act of remembrance, thus together fostering a stronger sense of national identity.

lin

Notably, the creation of any dish must be based on the previous experience of making or tasting that dish; therefore, memory plays a crucial role in the cooking process. As the Fongs have a collective understanding of what constitutes signature Chinese cuisine, they can cook them with ease. However, the same scenario did not apply to us in our cooking project. We, as students from various nationalities, had no united memory of eating, let alone an established memory of cooking, a Chinese dish. Although we chose to cook Moo Goo Gai Pan, a relatively simple chicken dish, we had many difficulties selecting a fitting recipe. Unlike the Fongs, who basically follow their culinary instinct as they cook, we meticulously looked through multiple versions of chicken recipes on the menu archive of New York City restaurants during the 1930s. Overwhelmed by the variations in names and ingredients of the historical Moo Goo Gai Pan, we eventually decided to cook from a modern recipe. Despite largely depending on the instruction of the recipe, we also cooked according to our embodied memory and sensory knowledge of previous dining occasions. Our cooking process corresponded well to David Sutton’s article “Cooking Skills, the Senses, and Memory,” in which he argues that recipes act as memory-jogs for previous learning that has been acquired through experience. In our case, “previous learning” mostly meant the experience of eating, not cooking, particular chicken dishes, because we are all amateurs who hardly ever cook.

Moo-Goo-Gai-Pan400

Reflecting on this recreation project, I believe that our lack of cooking training indeed characterizes the essence of a post-modern society, where transmission of generational knowledge from elders to youngsters is disrupted and deficient. The development of the modern kitchen space brings a relatively uncomfortable relationship with traditional cooking, as nowadays there are so many machines and tools to simplify the food preparation and cleaning process. It would be interesting to refer again to Sutton’s article and his enticing observation that for some people the loss of cooking tradition, which is a loss of particular skills and memories, is an inherent part of becoming the modern, individualistic people that they aspired to be. Such a loss of tradition indeed epitomizes our collective experience in the age of supermodernity, when food practices no longer wholly cling to notions of history, identity, and relationships in anthropological places.

Food and Non-place: Retrieving Memory in the Age of Supermodernity

In the current world, food and its associated memory are not only subject to the traditional anthropological places but also to the emergence of spaces with no relational, local, or historical connection. These spaces are commonly known as non-lieux, or non-place, which is a spatial concept proposed in Marc Augé’s essay “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.” The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, which are defined by an excess of time, space, and egos. For instance, ambivalent sites of transience, such as airports, supermarkets and fast food chains, are all non-places, making up a purely functional, sanitized landscape.

Augé’s characterization of non-lieux inspired me to do my creative project with regard to the food served on the airplane – an outstanding example of a non-place where history and memory can hardly be recognized, preserved, or interpreted. I created a comic about the in-flight dining experience of an international food critic, who is traveling from airplane to airplane to evaluate their meal service, and a Vietnamese student, who returns home after two years of studying in the United States. The food critic is particularly bothered by his unappetizing lunchbox. To him, the food within the confinement of the simulated cabin is an edible substance that, rather than fostering in him gastronomic satisfaction, oddly disjoins his coherent self-identity as a foodie. His body and mind, trapped in a non-place of ceaseless movement, can barely find any sensory flavor in the current dining experience; the peculiar taste, smell and texture of airplane food only trigger memories of his favorable food events. Meanwhile, the college student, having a lunchbox almost identical to that of the food critic, eats with joy, as her inflight meal materializes the reality of her journey back home. The meal transports her back to memories of her family dining occasions, thus offering her warm feelings of belonging and self-assurance, as well as the anticipation of reuniting with her loved ones. Within the “non-place” setting of the airplane, two characters are lost in an attempt to retrieve memories of familiar anthropological places. It is ambiguous whether their inflight food experience will be internalized into their consciousness as a newly formed memory, or if it will forever remain a superfluous, fading experience that characterizes the essence of a supermodern space.

Comic Cover

In constructing characters with opposing emotional responses despite consuming the same foodstuffs, my creative project reflects the role of food in shaping supermodern memories. In the age of supermodernity, the blossoming of non-places affects how memories are inscribed upon the body, thus differentiating food preferences and choices based on individual experience. The transient, temporal quality of a non-place allows people to freely travel backward or forward in time, therefore cultivating an extremely perplexing sense of embodied memory about food.

Food Migration and Movement: Constructing False Memory

Despite the rapid dissemination of non-places in the supermodern world, anthropological places will never be totally obliterated. A place and a non-place always exist together, mutually penetrating or pervading each other, and food is thus never in a fixed space but subject to constant migration and movement. An investigation of food in different spaces elucidates how our sensory memory is a reconstruction, rather than a faithful presentation, of the past. As a reconstruction, memory is not always vigilant in detecting devices working against its accuracy. Human beings might unconsciously adopt misleading information and form an erroneous consciousness toward certain phenomena, ultimately constituting a “false memory.” False memory, a concept prominent in psychoanalysis research, arises as a consequence of exposure to distortions and omissions of details as well as a construction of events that never really occurred. This construction of an imagined past makes one believe that the phenomena actually happened.

It would be interesting to study how the formation of a false memory correlates with our perception toward the origin of certain food products. When doing the foodstuffs project, our group was intrigued by how many people, including us, had adopted a collective awareness of fortune cookies as having originated from China. However, our research on the history of fortune cookies clarified that they were officially invented by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century America. While scholars have provided credible and substantial evidence claiming that fortune cookies are of Japanese origin, most ordinary people assume that the cookies were brought from China to the United States. As I reflected on this assignment, I found it necessary to interview some of my American and international friends to see whether they knew the real origin of fortune cookies. Not surprisingly, all of them associated the cookies with Chinese food in America. Their assumption naturally occurred: they explained how these products are mainly served in Chinese restaurants and takeout service, and are depicted in Hollywood movies as being accompanied alongside Chinese dishes. My interview experience allowed me to perceive how most of us have formed, more or less, a false memory of the origin of fortune cookies. Without a conscious desire to trace the origin of something, we can only construct a presumed memory by looking at the material quality of the visible items; in this case, what is visually perceived is the omnipresence of fortune cookies in Chinese-related spaces.

COOKIE

Although our memory, with respect to the origin of a foodstuff, can be fallacious, there is no conclusion for the national identity of products with such a complicated history as fortune cookies. As I examine the current distribution of fortune cookies, I see how the identity of these cookies is shifting according to the continual evolution of supermodern spaces. The presence of fortune cookies is no longer fixed to ethnic-specific places such as Chinese restaurants or bakeries as typically seen on the West Coast in the 20th century. Instead, the cookies are now widely sold in supermarkets, grocery stores, and are even served on airplanes. At the same time, the production of fortune cookies, similar to that of any other foodstuffs, has become increasingly automatized. In the age of supermodernity, food spends more and more of its time in transit between place and non-places. Inescapably, our memories associated with certain foodstuffs become more loosely bound by the intervention of excessive space and services.

Food and the Double Space: Building memories, Building Relations  

The age of supermoderntity produces an overabundance of non-lieux, non-places where memory and relations are ephemeral and ceaselessly rewritten. However, non-lieux should not be regarded as a fixed term but a relative concept existing in our intuitive perception. As we keep investing new meaning and significance into the space we occupy, the material quality of a non-place can still stir up new memories and relations within us.

I find it very intriguing to explore this aspect of the continuous investment of memory into spaces, especially when I conducted my mapping project in the Asia Supermarket in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. At first, this supermarket substantiated my understood notion of a non-place, as it exclusively functions as a transit space for people to come and buy food products. Because the supermarket is for communal reference and use, it is overcrowded with human presence, sustains the qualities of excessive individuality, and hardly evokes any feeling of attachment and relationship for the occupant bodies. However, after I paid a second visit to the supermarket to reflect on the assignment, my perception toward this space changed thanks to a new discovery. In the far-flung corner of the supermarket, there is a small restaurant called The Tasty Place that serves representative Asian dishes. This restaurant transforms the meaning of the Asia Supermarket in remarkable ways, as it provides a space for socialization, cultural exchange and identification. I saw families and friends sitting in the restaurant, chatting and laughing together while eagerly consuming their food. The Tasty Place brings an anthropological aspect to a non-place, where interpersonal communication is either absent or insignificant for most of the time.

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The Tasty Place in the Asia Supermarket even epitomizes a conscious reconstruction from a non-lieux to a lieux de mémoire, a concept defined by Pierre Nora as a “place of memory” where people deliberately discover and protect their memories. For its Asian customers, the food served in this restaurant particularly brings back memories of their home country, nurturing in them a distinct sense of identity and tradition within the “non-place” setting of the supermarket. Through the mapping project, I discovered how food and food services embody a transformative nature – they have the power to turn a trivial non-lieux into a unique entity filled with meaning and significance, double functioning as a place and a non-place and thus generating new memories and relationships.

Conclusion    

After an examination of the interaction between food, memory, and space, I develop a more nuanced understanding of the way food powerfully transports us back in time, catalyzes a collective act of remembrance, and triggers deep emotions relating to our identity.  Even in the age of supermodernity, when excessive spaces emerge with no definitive food culture, we can still create a way to trace and preserve our dining memories. In the end, food – just like lieux de mémoire – is used to help us identify with our cultural heritage and, in discovering those histories, we define ourselves.

_______________________                                                                                               Works Cited

Augé, Marc. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995. Print.

Lin, Yutang. Chinatown Family: A Novel. New York, NY: J. Day, 1948. Print.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux De Mémoire.” Representations 26 (1989): 7-24. Web.

Sutton, David. “Cooking Skills, the Senses, and Memory,” in Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 299-317. Print.

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