Tasting Memories, a Q&A with Sarah Earle

by Cece Roth-Eagle

Writing memoir, like good writing of any kind, involves a re-creation of our memories into compelling narrative.  But accessing memory can be tricky work.  This week, Writers on Writing talked to Sarah Earle about memory’s catalysts and her childhood hominy grits. Her course, ‘Accessing Memoir with Food,’ takes place Saturday, May 29th from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. 

As a memoirist, it can be so difficult to access memory.  How do you sort through your memories in order to write about them? 

Everyone’s process is different, but the most successful memoir I’ve written has been because experiences and memories have found me, not the other way around.  For me, the urgency and intensity of the material has been the catalyst.  

I’ve often heard that sensory details can help us remember the past.  How do you find food working as a tool within memoir? 

Taste is one of those senses that has the particular ability to transport you into memory at light speed.  I’ve often told students writing personal essays that they should return to old emails or photographs to help dislodge forgotten thoughts or feelings, but eating a certain food from your past can have the same effect.  The flavor, the warmth in your mouth, the smell that accompanies it — all these components can bring you back, often quite physically.  Taste seems an avenue of the body, not the brain. 

Can you describe your favorite meal?

I grew up in New Hampshire near my grandmother, but she hailed from Baltimore, so every year we’d go to visit her sister who lived on a farm outside of the city.  Consequently, I’ll always love breakfasts of hominy grits with big pats of butter melting in it.  And fried bacon and scrapple that I would chop up in little pieces and scatter across the grits, followed by a swig of orange juice.  Childhood bliss :)