Food as Nostalgia

By Iron Chef Leftovers

A while back, I wrote a post about my lack of understanding about the fascination with Dick’s and why do people consider it great. Regular reader, SeattleAuthor, wrote a response here. I am really not writing this to debate who is right or who is wrong; this is a post more about emotions that food evokes. When we talk about food or wine or beer that brings up strong emotions, we can usually pinpoint the time and the place and all of the details that surround that event. When we describe something to someone and call it “great” or the “best that I ever had,” we do need to ask ourselves, “Was it the food/wine/beer itself that was truly great, or was it the context of when I had it that made it great?”

I would place the mantel of calling something great or the best when I take a step back and look at the context. The first question that I would ask myself is “If I had the meal/wine/beer outside of the context that I had it in, would I still feel the same way?” Then I ask myself, “Would someone who did not know my feelings about the food/wine/beer but had a similar taste for those items feel the same way I do?” It is possible for something to be great without invoking the nostalgic memories of the event and it is also possible to be nostalgic without being great. It might also be both.

I think of examples in my own life – a dinner at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal a few years ago, shared with the two people who stood with me at my wedding was both amazing and nostalgic. Seven years later, we still can recount the details of what we had at that meal and I still consider it one of the three best I ever had. Those details were enhanced by the company and my feelings for those two people. I also realize that had I had that meal by myself, I would have still considered it to be one of the three best meals I ever had. I didn’t need the context of who I was with to frame that. I have many similar experiences, all of which seem to be as fresh in my mind as the day they happened.

A Bud Light was one of the best beers I ever had, not because it was a good beer (yes, I still think it is complete swill), but because of the circumstances surrounding when I had it. It was the first time my dad came to visit me in Seattle, it was just him and me, sitting down the third base line in Safeco field, on a warm April day. It also happened to be the first baseball game I ever attended with my dad. Framing that beer in that moment made it probably the most enjoyable beer I ever had. I can still picture the scene in my head and I can tell you exactly what that beer tasted like and, in my mind, it was the greatest tasting beer I ever had. We tend to have these types of experiences growing up – a favorite pizza or Chinese place; the ice cream truck that used to stop in front of the house; the diner at the end of the block that my mom and I would go to get cheesecake or where my grandmother and I would go when I would come back home to visit; a bottle of wine shared with a special someone. Were these places great, no. Would I recommend them to anyone, probably not – they are not great, but they are special to me.

I have had many great meals, beers, wines in my life also that there was no emotional attachment to. I would recommend these without hesitation to anyone, it is just the context in which I enjoyed them was not particularly memorable. I probably could tell you why they were such great experiences, but I doubt that I would be able to recount every detail of them.

This article has sat for over a month unfinished because I couldn’t figure out how to bring it to its conclusion. I found that inspiration a few weeks ago with something a friend of mine wrote on her blog. She recently lost a close friend in a senseless act of violence and wrote a very moving tribute on her blog. It made me realize that I saw the evolution of how food/wine/beer can be both great and nostalgic at the same time. An excerpt from what she wrote:

…would come to me on a regular basis proclaiming “OMG, Jen, you’ve got to get this wine. This shit is amazing!”

One day he had come to me with the same old story and I replied with something to the effect of “Zip it! I’m not falling for this Yancy. I need to save money”. His retort was “you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. You WILL regret not buying this wine and I won’t share any if you don’t get at least one bottle.” We both laughed and laughed because I finally stepped into the big leagues this time and purchased three bottles. Weeks later, like ‘em or not, the Wine Spectator came out and named this one of the top three wines in the world.

Well as luck would have it, I still have a bottle in the cellar. In the coming weeks a friend has organized a few industry colleagues to gather for a little tribute and bring a special bottle to honor our dear friend. I know what I’ll be pouring. You can bet your bottom dollar that I will toast my spirited cohort and recall many fond stories as I relish in how precious our time really is.

So often we realize after the fact, the significance of an event, like the simple act of buying a bottle of wine. Later on, that event takes on a different context and memories, maybe even more powerful than the original experience. We are lucky when we can attach those two separate events together to create something lasting, both “great” and “nostalgic.”

I would like to thank my friend Jen for allowing me to use her words and feelings in this post. I definitely owe her a beer since this piece probably would have never gotten finished if it wasn’t for what she wrote.

One thought on “Food as Nostalgia

  1. Interesting post. You have put two cases: food as food, and food as a trigger for personal memories. Both cases have legitimate uses, each in their own way; the first is most helpful in discussing recipes and new food experiences, and the second brings our personal anecdotes into the mix. I admit that my rebuttal to your original post about Dick’s was weighted heavily toward the latter.

    But I put it to you that there is a middle case we’ve missed: food as a dining experience. A hundred bucks a plate, stupendous food, but crappy service? $3.95 for the best Philly cheesesteak in a dark, dirty dive surrounded by truckers? The family-owned cafe overlooking a stream where the matriarch serves omelets made from farm fresh eggs and the cream for your coffee comes from the cows out back?

    I can see a place for all types.


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