My College:
Family Life

Holiday Memories Start in My Family Kitchen

Laura Tobar

Have you ever gone through the motions of an unremarkable day, only to be stopped in your tracks when a distinct scent transports you to a moment in the distant past?

Or have you caught a whiff of fragrance, some scent you couldn’t even identify, but one that brought up a vivid memory — perhaps a memory you didn’t even know you had?

My family has a holiday tradition of decorating fresh oranges with whole cloves. When you gently push the cloves into the rind to create an intricate pattern, the vibrant citrus mingles with earthy spice to exude an intoxicating scent. To this day, the faintest hint of the delicate yet complex aroma takes me back to the kitchen table in my childhood home and the days when I had just grown old enough to help, little fingers sticky with ripe orange juice and perfumed with the smell of the holidays.

While the experience of a scent spurring a vivid recollection can feel uncanny, it's probably more common than we realize. Smell is one of our most powerful senses, particularly as it relates to memories and emotions, and it's the most developed sense for a significant part of childhood. As French novelist Marcel Proust famously noted, many of our strongest memories are deeply entwined with this sense that was a primary tool for taking in the world during our early and formative years.

Maybe this connection is also why my memories of the winter holidays — such exciting moments for children! — are so strongly rooted in smell. The sharp scent of pine trees carried by a clean, chilly draft. Fragrant spices wafting on the steam of warm, rich beverages. An intense wave of cinnamon, preserved in artificially infused pinecones, pushed towards me by the whoosh of automatic doors…

These are a few of the experiences I associate with the winter holidays and the general atmosphere of this time of year. They’re very small moments, but I can imagine them clearly.

However, I can trace my most vivid holiday memories to the same place: my family kitchen. Nothing conjures the feeling of warmth and festivity like the smells that emanate from the oven. With each pie crust that infuses the air with buttery indulgence, I remember Thanksgivings when my mother and aunt would alternate turns crimping and pouring, meticulously crafting the highlight of the year’s most-anticipated meal. And with every sugar cookie that lends the kitchen its own distinct scent as it bakes, I recall the times my grandmother would pull up a step stool next to her and insist that I mix the ingredients so we could create something together when I was too little to do it by myself.

This is all to say that, when I think of home, more often than not I think of the associations between different smells and a sense of comfort, care and familiarity. As I’ve grown older, this feeling is something I miss acutely when I’m away — especially around the winter holidays, a time when baking at home would be more frequent and an open oven appreciated for its stray heat as much as its contents. More and more, I’ve realized that I have the power to conjure these memories of my own accord, and I can make the most of the holidays by baking a little taste of home, wherever I am.

What better time than now, when “normal” life has taken on a new meaning and it seems that everything is different, to share a family recipe with your children? Familiar, celebratory foods can be a comfort amid the chaos. There’s something extra special about an inherited recipe, and for college kids, always longing for something home-cooked, being entrusted with the knowledge needed to bring family flavors to life is its own gift.

Maybe you don’t have a decades-old, highly guarded proprietary recipe. How about passing along a blog post or magazine article with a dish or baked good you know your child will enjoy?

If your college student just isn't blessed with a magic touch in the kitchen, or you know they're too fixated on finals to bake something on their own, you might bake a favorite treat to mail in a care package. If they have time for a study break, conduct a baking tutorial over video chat. (I personally find that carefully measuring, mixing and baking is therapeutic.) When your children are ready to join in the tradition — or to start one of their own — it can be even more rewarding for them to taste a favorite creation after taking charge of the process.

Though we don’t always adequately express how much it means to us, a morsel from home (and the memories that accompany it) can alleviate the bittersweet nostalgia for childhood that's especially common in young adults during the holidays. This holiday season we could all use another way to spread cheer, recreate the aroma of treasured moments from years past, and make new memories.

Dark Chocolate and Cherry Holiday Bark Recipe

2 sleeves saltine crackers

1 cup unsalted butter (substitute plant-based butter to make the recipe vegan-friendly)

1 cup dark brown sugar

18 oz (1 ½ bags) dark chocolate chips

Flaky sea salt

Dried cherries

  1. Preheat oven to 350˚F and line a baking sheet with heavy-duty tinfoil.
  2. Cover the baking sheet entirely with saltine crackers, placing them salt-side-up in a single layer. You can break the crackers in half to cover the entire sheet.
  3. Melt the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Without changing the temperature, continue stirring for 5–10 minutes, until the mixture thickens and bubbles.
  4. Pour the sugar mixture over the saltines, spreading if necessary to reach the edges of the tray and coat the crackers evenly.
  5. Put the baking sheet in the preheated oven to bake for 10–12 minutes.
  6. Remove the tray from the oven and immediately sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. Once the residual heat from baking has melted the chocolate chips, use a spatula or the back of a spoon to uniformly spread the chocolate over the tray.
  7. Sprinkle flaky sea salt and dried cherries (or your own favorite toppings!­­­­) over the top.
  8. Refrigerate until the chocolate hardens, then break the sheet into pieces to create the bark.
  9. Enjoy!

Laura is a member of the Class of 2022 at Stanford University, where she studies Communication. When she isn’t reading or writing, you can find her experimenting with new vegan recipes, watching football, or expressing herself through art and poetry.

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