Our sense of smell and taste that together create our experience of flavour are registered in the oldest parts of our brains. These are the primeval bits of hardware that we share with lizards. It is in the deep recesses of our ancient faculty that memories are made. Our sense of taste and smell have the ability to trigger great thunderstorms of firing synapses that catapult us back to our most cherished memories. Flavour is part of our genetic baggage, it fundamentally changed the brain of early man. We swapped the security of the canopy for a life on two feet and hot dinners. It was our evolutionary trade-off for higher thought.
Food and drink are now inexorably tied up in our sense of self. We find ways to define ourselves through the narratives of what we consume; it has become
much more than simple sustenance. It takes societal meaning beyond the sum of the parts. In my career behind bars, I have seen this typified by the ritualistic behaviour of bartenders. A mob of tiki clad, sleep-deprived bartenders drinking shots of something mouth-puckeringly bitter, overproof, or ironically gauche is modern-day tribalism. There’s predilection for extremes. A challenge to the conventional tastes of the “uninitiated”. The equivalent of our long long monkey relatives pulling on their genitals and howling into the wind in an effort to be noticed. Is it annoying? Of course. Is it needed? Probably not. Does a small part of my immortal soul wither every time I witness it? Certainly. In all honesty, I’m probably no better sat here drinking my vodka sodas and looking down on it all. But I do understand the deep need to belong that this behaviour stems from.
In fact, I know the feeling all too well. My own sense of tribal belonging is wrapped up in the regional dish of Liverpool; Scouse. Ostensibly it is a stew made of potatoes, onions, carrots and meat. But it means so much more. A patchwork representation of the collective history of a mongrel city. Scouse finds origin in traditional dishes from seafaring countries of the North Sea. In Norway it is lapskaus, in Sweden lapskojs, typically the Danes add some syllables skipperlabskovs and the to the pragmatic Germans it is Labskaus.
Scouse is a Tuesday afternoon on Essex Road, with a loose school tie and dirty knees. Sat in my grandparent’s kitchen on a rickety stool from a pub that was closed well before I was born. Elbow to elbow with chaos. My entire extended family teeming over their seats, in the din of frantic conversation. Condiments and laugher being traded up and down the table. All orchestrated by careful hands with paper-thin skin and overseen by pale blue eyes full of love and generosity. This is the real power of food and drink, in the most primeval way it brings us back to being human.