A Tale of Olfactory Memory Triggers

A few years ago, when I was first toying with Paleo as a concept (before I did some digging and saw some logic fails, and long before I realised that the reason it worked so well for me was because of carbohydrate absorption issues), I tried to make cauliflower rice.

Brilliant, I thought. I’ll not only be able to replace my delicious rice with a low-carb, grain-free alternative, but I’ll manage to get some veggies into me at the same time. What could go wrong?

I diligently grated the crap out of some cauliflower and set it to steaming. The kitchen filled with the smell of steaming cauliflower as I turned my attention to the other dish that was going to be accompanied by it (I don’t recall what that was, now).

In the space of about five minutes, I went from a mellow, excited person who was experimenting with food in a safe space (remembering that I have some anxiety about food), to a bottomless pit of rage, despair, fear and panic. Violent anger. Nauseated fear. Misery. On the verge of weeping. In fact, I did start crying.

“What the freaking hell?” I sobbed to Michael.

And then I realised: I don’t have good associations with the smell of steamed cauliflower. As sensory triggers go, smell is known to be almost overwhelming in terms of triggering memory, and for me, the memories of that smell are associated with some really unpleasant times (long story I won’t be telling here). It is a visceral, deep response, bypassing the logic centres entirely. I was actually embarrassed. What a benign thing to be triggered by!

So. Steamed cauliflower was out.

Years later, on the keto train, I decided I really wanted a rice substitute. As it is, I do the maths and allow myself really small amounts of rice, but I always want more, so it’s an exercise in frustration (delicious, delicious frustration).

Today I opened up a pack of cauliflower rice from Woolworths (thus obviating the necessity of me “ricing” it myself and thus having to clean up something where the smell might cause days of misery), and decided to fry it. The Parent very rarely fried things, and never vegetables, so I thought perhaps the smell wouldn’t be an issue. I sniffed the packet, and it was… okay. A bit uncomfortable for me. But okay.

I used toasted sesame oil, which is both delicious and strong smelling. I quickly scrambled some eggs to add in, to dilute the flavour further. I added generous helpings of soy sauce.

Fried cauliflower rice with egg and soy sauce, I thought. This is brilliant. Admittedly, I was a bit anxious. The smell was creeping through the sesame oil a bit, but maybe it would be okay.

I had a mouthful, prepared to spit it out and go cry in the corner.


I chewed thoughtfully.

Not bad. Probably a bit too heavy handed with the soy sauce, I thought to myself.

If I put the fork under my nose and inhaled, I felt awful. If I didn’t inhale, and just ate it, it was fine.

“Victory!” I declared. “And over time it will get easier and better. Exposure therapy! Desensitisation! Low-carb alternatives! Yes, this is where it’s at.”

I got through half a bowl before it caught up to me.

Now, it’s not so bad that I’m having a panic attack. It’s definitely a diluted effect. But I can feel the muscle tension crawling out along the base of my skull and along my shoulders; I can feel my stomach tightening; I can feel a little adrenaline kick as my fight-flight rears its cautious head.

And I scrapped the remainder and tossed out the cauliflower rice.

Cauliflower, it seems, is not for me. Somehow, I’d feel better about it if I simply didn’t like the taste; that’s easier to explain to people, and I suspect that for the most part that is what I would tell people who ask in the moment, since I am very self conscious about my limitations with food (whether it be the low-carb requirement or the sensory processing issue or simply anxiety about trying new things with an audience).

But it’s not the problem. The taste was fine.

By the way, this is also why I don’t do roasts…


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