Food and Historical Trauma - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities
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Food and Historical Trauma

We continue our regular series from the Humanities Research Fellows.  This week, Lisa Cromer, Associate Professor of Psychology and an expert in trauma, reflects on the connection between food and memory in cultures that have suffered extraordinary loss.

Food, emotions and memory are inextricable. Psychology tells us that what we eat and how much we eat, are impacted by our emotions (Macht, 2008). Similarly, food is a powerful agent for evoking emotions and emotional memories. The sight and smell of a favorite dish can flood one with positive reminders of special people and times; the associated emotions may be comfort, love, and joy. Memories may be related to holidays, but also can be part of our remembered personal narratives; for example, holocaust survivors speak of happy associations with bread, as bread represented survival (Bachar et al., 2005).

cromer-seedsFood memories can also be powerfully negative or repulsive; indeed experimental studies show that a single negative experience with food (for example, the onset of sickness after eating a food), can result in an enduring food aversion. I think of my grandfather who could not tolerate the sight or smell of blue cheese because of the memories of starving during WWII, and having only rotting cheese on which to subsist. Food memories are also associated with cultural and religious practices. These traditional and rituals means—whether they be gefilte fish on Jewish holidays, seafood risotto for Italian Catholics on Christmas Eve, or congee to celebrate the Chinese New Year—can evoke a sense of connection. Food traditions transcend time, making food rituals a way of memorializing the past.

As I reflect on the use of food for cultural connection and individual attachment to a collective, I wonder about food and food narratives as a way of healing the past. In particular, I wonder if food rituals and narratives facilitate cultural healing. Historical trauma is framework for conceptualizing the experience of mass trauma and oppression of a group who share an identity or affiliation. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is credited with applying historical trauma to healing for American Indians (Brave Heart, 1998). Her theory posits that the social ills plaguing American Indians in the present are rooted in past atrocities, and that healing begins with recognizing and understanding past trauma, then grieving that trauma, before transcending it. In the literature, historical trauma is typically measured by how much one thinks about ancestral losses of land, language, family ties, culture, spirituality, and respect.

At present, food traditions are not measured in the historical loss/trauma literature, which may be a shortcoming. Anthropologist Jon Holtzman (2009) identified important cultural themes related to memory and food; he noted that food is an avenue for historical connections to nostalgia, family and ethnic identity. When we examine the American Indian experience, a component of historical trauma stems from governmental control of food sources and food preparation and other food-related traditions. Traditional foods were symbols of ethnic identity and changes to food practices stripped American Indians further of an aspect of their cultural identity (Wesley-Esquimaux & Smolewski, 2004). Given that healing from cultural oppression and loss theoretically occurs through a process of recognizing and understanding the historical trauma, and culminates ultimately in transcending the trauma, perhaps exploring, revisiting, and reconnecting with food traditions and oral food narratives could be an additional way of healing from historical trauma.


Bachar, E., Canetti, L., & Berry, E. M. (2005). Lack of long-lasting consequences of starvation on eating pathology in Jewish Holocaust survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Journal of abnormal psychology, 114(1), 165.

Brave Heart, M. Y. H. (1998). The return to the sacred path: Healing the historical trauma and historical unresolved grief response among the Lakota through a psychoeducational group intervention. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 68(3), 287-305.

Holtzman, J. D. (2006). Food and memory. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 35, 361-378.

Macht, M. (2008). How emotions affect eating: a five-way model. Appetite, 50(1), 1-11.

Wesley-Esquimaux, C.C. & Smolewski, M. (2004). Historic Trauma and Aboriginal Healing accessed from: