Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Nostalgia of Food

For me, food is in large part nostalgic. A taste of a juicy quarter pound hamburger instantly transports me to summers outside, dad on the grill, playing with my sisters while waiting for dinner. Ice cream reminds me of summer softball games and home runs. And steamy chili evokes memories of chilly winter afternoons snuggled up in front of the television with my family, watching game after game. With each dish comes a new memory; with each meal I try harder to re-live the past.

The true irony is that I am nostalgic for a past that didn’t exist. Yes, we ate chili, ice cream, and hamburgers. Yes, we grilled, played softball, and watched t.v. together. But those memories are laced with an air of togetherness that we never had when I was a child. My family was a confederation of independent states – not a cohesive nation. When we ate together (usually in front of the television) it was some of the only time we spent together as a group, but our isolation never ebbed. I spent so much of my life yearning for togetherness and fighting for independence. Meals were a truce, a time when everyone put down their arms and came together to eat because we needed sustenance to keep the battle going. Eventually, after mom left, meals became hollow and empty – a time for ‘catch-up’ and were the only time we communicated for days on end.

For a long time I looked back on my life and was proud of our confederation, I honored the isolation. Now, however, I can see the loneliness that was in my heart all along. I feel it every time I make tacos, cookies, or bologna soup. I feel it in the fabricated memories and the false sense of togetherness. I feel it in the realization that what I remember didn’t really happen, and that what happened wasn’t really worth remembering. And I feel it in the empty longing that I still have to connect with others despite my stubborn pretense of independence. Now, I know the truth – and it haunts me.

But it also propels me forward. Years later, my family and I still bond over food. It is impossible for us to spend more than two hours together without consuming food of some sort and most of our get-togethers revolve around a shared meal. We have moved forward with our lives and are now in a place where we can share joy, love, pain, and dinner with each other. Each meal is an opportunity to create a new experience, a new memory – and damn it all if we don’t strive for just that! I do not mourn my childhood, I celebrate my awareness of how precious each moment - every morsel, every crumb, and every sip really is in helping me to make new associations and renew my love of food.

Nostalgia is a combination of the way things were and the way we wanted things to be. It’s a fondness for the past that can never quite meet the expectations of today’s experience. Although I will never be able to disconnect my consumption from my memories of the past, I hope that with each preparation those associations loosen and become less binding. That gradually, instead of acting as a portrait of what the eating experience should be, the memories season my food and become a flavor like any other that merely colors my meal and sets the stage for my epicurean encounter.

To honoring the past, shaping a better future, and embracing every opportunity to make new memories today.

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