This is the in-between time. A one week lull between holiday blow-outs 1 and 2. While our individual traditions and beliefs may vary, some persistent themes dominate the season: we gather indoors with friends and family, and we eat. There is power in that simple act. Regardless of the Happy Holidays and Merry Whatevers, there is real magic in coming together for a meal.

“One” is the Hungriest Number

Modern life is full of contradictions. Social media breaks down boundaries while simultaneously reinforcing loneliness and alienation. Urban living pushes people away from each other in ways that defy reason. After years of living in apartments, I think they should be renamed “together-ments.” Wouldn’t that be more accurate? I learned my neighbors’ sleep schedules, favorite music, and way more than I wanted to know about their relationship issues. Yet we rarely shared meals. There was something about being packed so tightly together that made me yearn for a bit of psychic breathing space. I wonder if there might’ve been a better way, if each of us in our galley-style kitchen, silently consuming takeout, wouldn’t have preferred to be together, really together, at least once in a while. Might we have been more nourished if we joined forces to eat? If we knew each other’s names, anecdotes, and favorite side dishes? 

The research says yes: People who share meals with others are more likely to feel better about themselves, to have better support systems and broader social networks (real social networks — not the kind fashioned from 1s and 0s). They are healthier, happier, more trusting, and more engaged in their communities. Eating is one of a suite of activities that cause our brains to release hormones that drive happiness and social bonding. Laughing, singing, and dancing are also on the list. It is human nature to join together for food and merriment, and the practice crosses boundaries of culture, time, and place. It is what we do.

Do You Smell What I Smell?

When we gather around traditional foods and cherished family recipes, how do our senses and brains process the experience? Turns out it’s not all a matter of taste. Much of the heavy lifting of tasting is actually done by your sense of smell! Our taste buds have a shockingly limited vocabulary, able to perceive flavors you could count on one hand: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and savory. How can five puny categories take in the cornucopia of flavors we encounter in a lifetime? Luckily our extraordinary sense of smell reveals the delicacies and nuances that surround us, exponentially increasing our ability to enjoy whatever we choose to sip, slurp, and sup upon.

Each one of us has millions of scent receptors in our nose and throat, capable of perceiving all sorts of stimuli. Their power is heightened during winter — scents don’t travel as far in cold, dry air. Our noses work overtime to pick up information, both for evolutionary advantage and so they don’t fall off from sheer boredom.

Have you ever come across the scent of baking cookies, or a familiar flower, and found yourself overcome by a distant memory? You aren’t alone. Scent is intricately linked not only to our ability to taste, but also to remember. Those millions of smell receptors send information directly to the amygdala and the hippocampus, areas of the brain where our most potent memories and emotions are stored. Information gathered by the other senses, such as sight, touch, and hearing, don’t travel this pathway. They go somewhere else to be considered and analysed for awhile. Not smells, though: they are marked “URGENT — Highest Priority!” Our response to them is immediate and visceral. They have the power to take us back to the time and place we originally encountered them, so strong are the associations.

Snack to the Future

Which brings us back to the holidays. Ideally, we feast, laugh, and sing surrounded by loved ones — people with whom we are already bonded, or new relationships in their first bloom. But if you are old enough to be reading this, chances are there are some gaps. That’s how it goes: We can’t spend the holidays with everyone we’ve ever loved. Too often, we are separated by time, distance, and mortality. Luckily, we have all these magical foods.

Personally, I have my family’s shortbread recipe, the subtle sweetness of the dough, the colossal amount of butter melting with the warmth of my hands as it is kneaded for no less than 20 minutes. I uphold my mother’s tradition of smoked fish, a heavy and pungent scent cut by the sharpness of lemon zest and pickled capers. And this year I was deputized as the bringer of the mashed potato casserole. I can’t mix up a batch without vividly recalling the time I plunged my 11-year-old elbow into the same casserole right before Mum’s guests arrived for the meal. There is a new generation with whom to share these dishes. We gather, eat, and laugh. While all my loved ones aren’t able to be here, at least our favorite foods are, and for a moment, my hippocampus is blissfully unaware of the difference. 

We wish a warm and zesty New Year to you, your community, your loved ones, and to the dishes and scents that tie us all together!

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