Reflections on Cupping – Part Four: Memory

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Have you had a smell or a taste spark a flavour memory, be it a special meal or first food experience? If you have read Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ or – like me – have just watched the Sopranos episode, you will be familiar the classic example of the madeleine that leads Proust to return and traverse his childhood. For this week’s ‘ask lee’ let us explore what happens when we exchange the madeleine for a cup of coffee!

We have spent the last couple of weeks working through the impact of smell at the cupping table. Outlining how our noses work in two ways with the “orthonasal” route presenting information from the outside world and the “retronasal” pathway creating the ‘image’ of flavour. When we chew and swallow, we bombard our receptors through the retronasal route. Allowing our ‘olfactory bulb’ to generates ‘odor perception‘ and send along the information.

Here is where it gets particularly interesting, as “it goes directly to the ancient parts of the brain responsible for emotion and memory”. As Bob Holmes explains, “it does not reach the conscious, logical part of the cerebral cortex until several stops later”. Smell is unique in this routing, which Charles Spense explains, “information from the other senses has a much longer path to travel through the brain before it hits our emotion centers, and hence it can be more easily filtered out”.

Essentially, not only does this retronasal pathway work to produce the ‘mental image’ of flavour but it also ignites our food memories. At the cupping table this past week, I smelled intensely and slurped with force. I was intent on crisscrossing through my own taste memories. The results were appropriately sentimental.

The Ethiopia Eshete’s delicate lemon notes reminded me of a poppy seed roll from my childhood. Dense vanilla and lemon cake with crunchy sweet white icing. The Ethiopia Kayon Mountain’s deep chocolate and berry took me back to high school. I worked as a prep cook in Regina and will always recall my first bite of a real chocolate torte, served with a berry coulis, as was the culinary style of the time. In cupping form, Ethiopia Celinga presents intense watermelon. It is a weird sensory stimulus; it is as refreshing and cool as watermelon in the midst of a swampy Toronto Summer day but contained in an equally warm cup.

The underlying argument in all these posts about cupping continues to be that taste is very subjective. Really what could be more personal than your individual memories and experiences? If you have some free time this week, smell and drink a cup of Cut and let me know how it takes you back to a food experience or point in your life. If I get enough, I will post them in next week’s email. There is something truly wonderful in the fact that we garner so much from a shared simple cup of coffee.

Side note: given the power of smell in tasting, plastic to-go lids seem like terrible design. I used to advocate drinking a sip before adding milk or sugar but maybe suggesting people take a sniff is even better advice.