Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

The Dangers of Nostalgia at the Stove: When Nostalgia becomes Dogma

Is nostalgia dangerous? More to the point, is nostalgia a dangerous weapon when held in the hands of some food writers?

I’ll confess to a salient fact: I’ve written about food through a thick lens of nostalgia, licking the pot of myth and stirring with the spoon of longing . I’ve cooked the iconic dishes of France and Italy, hunting the elusive rapture of the Elysian Fields in the saltiness of the perfect cassoulet and the smoothness of a creamy tiramasu. Hoping for a moment in paradise alongside Jimmy Buffet with his cheeseburger, so to speak. The very nature of food and its associations with family means that nostalgia will always be a part of humans’ interactions with food, in one way or another, in writing, film, and social media.

But the nostalgic twist of much of today’s food writing is beginning to concern me. A lot. Two different trends in particular, heavily drenched in nostalgia, now dominate discourse about food. Both of these trends are dangerous, for they both narrow the conversation by fallaciously attributing qualities and characteristics to food and making unfounded assumptions.

First, let’s start with a definition of nostalgia: “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.”

Julie Csergo, quoted in Sylvie-Anne Mériot’s Nostalgic Cooks: Another French Paradox (Brill, 2006, p. 15), sums it up quite well:

The fantastic and mythical memory of the country [France] thusly recreated revives and protects the feeling of belonging and continuity of an urban population returning to its roots and identity. In this re-appropriation and re-valuing of traditional cooking and local skills, the discourse contributes to elaboration of culinary stereotypes where rural society becomes from that point intimately associated with a “quality” fit to symbolize the excellence of France in all its component parts, in its land as in its men [people].

Then, turning our attention what exactly is meant by “food writing,” let’s take an analytical tack: writer and editor Elatia Harris, in an article that deserves more attention, defines food writing in terms of the different goals of the writer. Ms. Harris defines the following types of food writers, and hence food writing:

  • The Literary Writer
  • The Communicator
  • The Craftsman
  • The Connoisseur
  • The Authority
  • The Discoverer
  • The Introspective Writer

For practicality, let’s think of food writing as writing that places food at the center of the piece, making food its basic focus, even though the stories may convey a larger lesson.

Originally, nostalgic food writing served only to convey the fond food memories of writers with far more monetary means than the average citizen, allowing them to experience the advantages of eating and traveling and writing, opportunities impossible for the vast majority doomed to work in factories or other means of production.

Seeking the “perfect” French experiences of M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child or the Venetian raptures of Marcella Hazan and Marlena di Blasi buries certain truths: producing food is hard, hard work, from the first sowing of the seed to the harvesting, and then finally the cooking. Nostalgic-infused seeking also prevents a food writer from feeling his or her own moment, framed as it is always in the cross-hairs of M. F. K.’s or Marcella’s or Marlena’s.

Technically speaking, nostalgia really has no legs when it comes to food. Like a car, the human body runs on the fuel provided by the fodder we eat every day. We put food in our mouths, chew, and everything mixes together in our stomachs. There, acid and enzymes go work to prep everything for absorption in our small intestines. Simple enough. And no matter how much money we spend on the food that ends up in our guts, our bodies treat that food — fancy or plain — in the same manner. Rich or poor, the outcome is the same. Hardly the stuff of nostalgia, right?

And yet, some food writers today, Michael Pollan being only one of many, imbue food with almost mythical powers, harking to grandmothers who supposedly cooked everything to perfection (remember that cassoulet?) and rejoiced because they cooked carrots and potatoes and rutabagas grown naturally in their gardens, harvested through digging in soil enriched with manure from their cows, stored in their root cellars, along with rows and rows of sparkling jars of pickled ruby-red beets and cucumbers bumpy with alligator-like skin. The myth goes that they loved the drudgery of cooking every day and would sniff at the modern convenience foods that we love to diss. If our great-grandmothers wouldn’t eat it, we’d better not, either. Oh, really?

What fallaciousness.

Other food writers out there falling into the fallacious column include those who propose — without rigorous adherence to scholarship — that one group or another deserves credit for a whole body of cuisine, as in the currently popular assumption that slave cooks created Southern cuisine almost single-handedly and spiced it all with the aromas of Africa . And who decry efforts to publish material with which they don’t agree.

Some voices appear over and over again in the discourse on food, the media giving the squeakiest wheels the grease. With the advent of social media, these Pied Pipers sway food conversations in ways that mislead their myriad seekers, preaching their nostalgic message, divisive and akin to a new religion, entrenching ideas of “we” and “they” and “Otherness.”

At a certain point, nostalgia changes from feelings to dogma.