The Problem With Nostalgia

One of the themes I’ve been playing with lately, especially within the candy book, is that of nostalgia. At its root, nostalgia is blessedly easy to define – fond remembrances of the past. Yeah, yeah, Merriam-Webster calls it “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”. From my point of view it’s a po-TAY-to/po-TAH-to kind of thing.

The problem with nostalgia is that our memory is a selective, biased beast, meaning it tends to pick out only the vital bits of information which it deems worthy, and disregards the rest. When we revisit that memory, we tend to fill those lost details with bits of information that support the portions that remain. Sometimes this means inventing aspects of a moment that simply didn’t happen.

What has this got to do with food? Think back upon any dinner or food on which you have fond remembrances.

How precise can you recall the taste of the food?

Or, is there a larger memory in place that’s influencing your perception of that food?

The stereotypical bit of Nostalgia we have here is the how well our mother or our grandmother cooked. My suggestion here is that, while there is certainly a subset of mothers and grandmothers who are and were exceptional cooks, my guess is that what most people who hold this belief are wistful for, is not necessarily the food, but the care and love that the moms and grandmas demonstrated to you via the medium of cooking.

Whoa, let me backtrack there a minute. Not your mom or grandmom. Other people’s. Your mother and/or grandmother were likely saints.

Let me put this another way. Has anyone ever gotten a recipe from their parents, but when you cooked it, it tasted different from what you recalled? This is your nostalgia working against you. As a functioning adult, you know your strengths and weakness, and when you apply your skills to the real world, you’re more likely to recognize on what you did well and how you can improve. This is especially true when you produce something for others to consume.

But as a consumer rather than a producer, your role is completely different. Other people take on the role of evaluating their skills sets. Additionally, you, as the recipient of your mother’s or grandmother’s largesse, kick critical-analysis to the curb. You don’t judge the food, at least not in depth. You receive with the intent it is given, and judge it,in part, based off of that intent. This is called bias. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly acceptable to have a few.

The problem is that, when we look upon food with a sense of nostalgia, very rarely are we looking upon the food itself. Oh sure, we think it’s about food, and sometimes it can be. But other times, that food for which we have fond memories is, in reality, representative of something else. The lesson for us is in trying to discern between the food itself, and what it represents.