“In the last month I have consumed things that I have not eaten in many years, sometimes decades,” wrote Stacey Ballis in today’s feature on tuna and rice. “I have been very open on social media about my consumption of these nostalgic foods, and in each case, I have been shocked to see how many other people have admitted to their own similar indulgences... seeking the very specific comfort of flavors from a different and more innocent time.”
Perhaps one of the defining features of nostalgia foods, and the thing that separates them from the notion of “comfort food,” is their mass-market nature. Maybe because their factory-made consistency encodes their taste and texture even deeper in your brain. Or maybe because your own memory of these treats matches the collective memory of an entire generation. Comfort food might be a casserole dish heavy with cheese and potatoes that your grandma always cooked for you, but nostalgia food is the Hostess cupcake she slid beside your empty plate for dessert.
And maybe nostalgia is also formed by not just the connection we had to these foods as children, but by the departure from those foods in the intervening years, forgetting all about them while we were off discovering new things and learning how to eat like adults or how we thought adults were supposed to want to eat. Nostalgia is, at least in part, the shocking realization that all the flavors and memories from an earlier moment in time have crystallized perfectly in our absence, trapped in amber (or molasses).
For me, it might not be a food at all, but a drink: root beer from a two-liter bottle. It was a staple in my grandparents’ fridge, and I sipped it from a yellow plastic tumbler that always smelled a little like dish soap. It wasn’t a name brand, and the bottle always had a 50/50 shot of retaining its carbonation. I never buy root beer for myself now, and I haven’t even drunk much of it since I was about 10. While college introduced me to the previously unknown subculture of root beer snobbery (Virgil’s being the beverage of choice among the most discerning drinkers), nothing ever tasted as good as guzzling house-brand root beer out of a flat two-liter bottle quickly before your 22 equally thirsty cousins in the front room found out there was any left. The urgency lent something to the taste, I think.
Which foods unlock a certain room of your heart?