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The Science Behind Why Your Grandmother’s Cooking Is Always the Best

If you don’t have good memories of your family, you probably don’t rate Nonna as much of a cook

There is no good English translation for the Persian term dastpokht. Literally, it translates to “hand cooking,” but its meaning is more akin to “style of cooking” or “mastery of cooking.” The term is, by definition, person specific, and it intends that the food created by the individual’s hands is, by extension of their being, unique. 

It’s also the only possible way to explain why my Persian grandmother’s cooking — her dastpokht — is for me, singular, because describing it to you is like trying to describe a ghost with any level of certainty. Sure, I could start by referencing some of the rich, uniquely Persian flavors and ingredients, like crushed, roasted walnuts simmering in turmeric-coated chopped onions and reduced in pomegranate molasses. I could also attempt to describe some of the scents, like that of her jeweled rice, which tantalizes once the butter and the cloves have reached critical mass. 

But none of it would really matter, because scientifically speaking, the greatness of her cooking goes so far beyond the simple spectrum of palatability. “Food memories feel so nostalgic because there’s all this context of when you were preparing or eating this food, so the food becomes almost symbolic of other meaning,” Susan Whitborne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, told HuffPost in 2017. “A lot of our memories as children, it’s not so much the apple pie, for example, but the whole experience of being a family, being nourished, and that acquires a lot of symbolism apart from the sensory quality.”

Which is to say that every time I eat my grandmother’s cooking, my tastebuds act as a sort of time machine for my subconscious, transporting me back to all those times she let me eat a jar of Nutella and go ape on the drum kit she bought me. In that way, my draw to her cooking is sort of like Pavlov’s dog experiment, only in this case, I’m the dog who’s been conditioned to believe that her stews are culinary Valhalla.

Interestingly, though, this link between food and memory stems from a not-so-positive foundation — it’s actually part of a human survival tactic known as “conditioned taste aversion.” “According to a 2018 study conducted on rats by psychology professor Kathleen C. Chambers, “Conditioned taste aversion is a learned association between the taste of a particular food and illness such that the food is considered to be the cause of the illness,’” per PopSugar. That means the same mechanism that incites nostalgia for my grandma’s cooking is the same one that tells my brain to remember when and why to avoid certain foods that could make me sick. 

But that’s not all. Also according to PopSugar, a 2014 study conducted on mice found that taste is associated as well with memories of being in a location where something good or bad might have happened. “This means that eating certain foods can set off certain triggers in the brain that instill a sense of calm or fear in us, depending on what we associate that food with,” Chanel Vargas writes.

To that end, Hadley Bergstrom, an assistant professor of psychology at Vassar, told HuffPost that nostalgia instigated by a certain type of sauce or food is reinforced every time you eat said food or sauce. Which means that my grandmother has, for nearly 30 years, been slowly using her recipes to hypnotize my taste buds like a snake charmer. And while all of that should be enough to lead me to question whether or not my grandmother’s cooking is actually as good as I’ve always believed it to be, well, the power of those food memories is simply too strong to be wavered by objectivity.