The smell and taste of food can be an extraordinarily powerful trigger of nostalgia. One of my earliest food memories is the smell of homemade bread waifing through the house. I couldn’t have been more than 3 years old when that yeasty aroma of baking bread forever imprinted on my brain so much so that when I smell bread baking today – nearly 60 years later – I melt with desire (and its not for a man). All I need is a bread knife and a bit of jam and I’m in heaven.
Lest you think I grew up nourished by homemade bread, let the record be set straight. Homemade bread ended with the birth of my third or fourth brother. From then on it was Pepperidge Farm white bread, Thomas’s english muffins or white sandwich rolls. The 1960’s and 70’s changed the food landscape and nowhere was that more evident than in the home I grew up in in northern New Jersey. Out with the fresh and in with shelf stable boxed, canned, and frozen food. Convenience was the priority. Nutrition wasn’t even an afterthought.
When I think back to what I ate as a child, I think of the “cereal cabinet” filled with boxes of Fruit Loops, Cap’n Crunch, Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, Frosted Flakes, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Apple Jacks, Quisp, Lucky Charms, Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks, Frosted Mini Wheats, and on the “healthier side” were Corn Flakes, Cheerios, and Shredded Wheat. Cereal wasn’t just for breakfast; we devoured bowls of crunchy sweet flakes and bits as a snack and sometimes for dinner. Fill up a bowl, add a few tablespoons of sugar (as if there wasn’t enough sugar already in the cereal), and drown it all in whole milk. When the cereal was gone the bottom of the bowl contained a thick sludge of sugar and milk.
How our teeth didn’t rot out, I’ll never know but most of my five siblings (and myself) always had appointments at the dentist to fill cavities (preventive dental care wasn’t a big priority and those were the days before fluoride was added to the water). Easier to throw money at the problem (cavities) than prevention (ensuring proper dental care), which is what the food landscape in my childhood home was also like: throw money at the problem (feeding lots of children conveniently) rather than teaching good eating habits with fresh, healthy food choices.
Bacon, sausage, fried eggs, and pancakes were a weekend staple. The Aunt Jemima or Hungry Jack pancake mix was dumped into a bowl along with eggs, milk, and butter (always butter, never margarine) to make pancake batter that was carefully poured on an extra large kitchen griddle. Bacon and sausage were offered as side dishes while the butter and Aunt Jemima pancake syrup (which I don’t think had maple syrup as an ingredient; I seem to recall the main ingredient was high fructose corn syrup) were passed around. Fresh bagels, glazed donuts, and jelly donuts were often on the table as we lived just a few blocks from a bagel shop and bakery. It’s a wonder we didn’t have atherosclerosis or diabetes by the time we reached adulthood.
Lunch was typically a sandwich: white bread with Oscar Meyer bologna or liverwurst or deli sliced ham, turkey or roast beef (all now considered a Type 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization) with a slice of processed American or Swiss cheese. Dessert was often a Yodel, Ring Ding, or a Devil Dog (a variation of chocolate cake filled with a vanilla flavored cream), or Twinkies (white sponge cake filled with a vanilla flavored cream in the center).
When I was in college, a friend and I compared a typical grade school lunch brought from home: mine was a bologna sandwich on dry white bread (we were not a mayo family) and 6 mini Reese’s peanut butter cups (which were often devoured on the school bus and never made it to lunch) and two dimes to buy a carton of milk and an ice cream sandwich at school. My friend (who grew up in Evergreen, Colorado where her parents relocated after serving in the Peace Corps) often had granola, fresh cut vegetables, an apple, or a sandwich on whole grain bread. We were both in awe of each other’s lunch although I was the only one experiencing mimetic desires.
As you may have guessed, my mother was not a cook. With six children, she chose convenience over health and nourished us with crap. How we grew into adulthood still baffles me as the food choices were appalling. We lived on Spaghetti-O’s, Elio’s frozen pizza, frozen Eggo waffles, soda, Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, vanilla wafers, Oreos, Fig Newtons, Cool Whip, potato chips, pretzels, Pringles, Nestle’s Quick and Bosco Chocolate Syrup.
Although we lived across the street from an apple and peach orchard, these fruits were primarily used to make pies. Peaches and pears along with fruit cocktail came from a can filled with heavy sugar laden syrup. Canteloupe and Honeydew melon (my father’s favorites), and strawberries (once from a pick your own farm) graced the countertop and refrigerator only during the summer months. Bananas were almost always available although they were often used to make jello (picture a rectangular glass Pyrex dish with red jello mixed with banana slices) or banana cake when the Pepperidge Farm pound cake, chocolate cake, or coconut cake were not in the freezer or when there was no boxed Angel Food cake to make.
Duncan Hines Brownie Mix was also a staple in our pantry and all of us quickly learned how to preheat the oven, grease a pan, dump the mix into a bowl, add melted butter (always butter, never margarine) and eggs, and then mix the batter before pouring the gooey glob into the greased pan before baking. “Fresh” brownies never lasted more than a few hours in our home. While babysitting the neighbor’s kids up the street, I watched as they made brownies by following a recipe from the Joy of Cooking and was shocked to learn how easy brownies from scratch can be made. Another eye-opening moment on the long road of learning about food and choices.
Meat was often front and center on our dinner plates: well done pork chops with store bought sweetened applesauce, fried/baked chicken breasts with frozen baked french fries, hamburgers and hot dogs, sloppy joes served on white bread buns, pot roast with boxed or mashed potatoes, spaghetti with meat sauce, or some mystery meat often cut up with scissors (lest we choke) and served with white bread cut up and topped with gravy or ketchup. On busy nights, it was chicken, turkey, or beef pot pies from the freezer (we preferred the kind with the full crust instead of the crust just on the top), frozen Salisbury steaks, or defrosted pizza from a restaurant (known for its thin crust pizza) in Nanuet, NY (my mother would buy multiple pies and freeze the slices). For a touch of International fare, Chicken Chow Main was made from the cans of Chun King or La Choy.
There were only 2 types of fish in our freezer: breaded fish sticks and boxes of frozen jumbo shrimp that my mother purchased to use for the shrimp cocktail that my father enjoyed, although on special occasions, I recall the horror of watching my mother put live lobsters in boiling water while they fought to jump out and save themselves.
Snacking was a major pastime when I was growing up and our choices were often Ruffle or Lays potato chips, Fritos, Doritos, Pringles, potato sticks, Triscuits, Wheat Thins, Sociables, and Ritz crackers with Velvetta or Easy Cheese (a cheese type product sprayed from a can). To my mother’s credit, we were allowed to eat on demand (although the nutrition content of what we were eating was abysmal). She never subscribed to the 3 meals a day routine so we ate and learned to eat when we were hungry.
Vegetables were virtually non-existent in our home unless they came from a can or it was summer when fresh corn on the cob was available. Our neighbors (from California) had a garden in their backyard and often gave us zucchini in the summer which were battered, fried, and served to us as a summer treat. French green beans and asparagus came from a can as did peas (ironically only LeSueur would do). The only lettuce in the house was Iceberg and was rarely used unless a salad (defined as lettuce and tomatoes and maybe cucumbers) was being served in which case, bottled French or Catalina dressing was poured over the top. The only legumes served were canned baked beans laden with brown sugar and salt pork.
The first time I tasted a plum was when I was 12 years old on a picnic with a friend’s family. It was the second most nostalgic food moment in my life (the smell of homemade bread baking being the first). I couldn’t believe that a fresh piece of fruit could taste so sweet, juicy, and satisfying. Soon thereafter I started working at a local farm stand and discovered the joy of fresh raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, pears, and an exotic new fruit called kiwi. I also learned the best way to eat white corn in August is right off the picker’s truck. The smaller the cob and the kernels, the sweeter the corn would be. No boiling or butter required or necessary. Simply strip the ear and bite into those small white kernels and enjoy one of the greatest joys of summertime.
Ice cream was a big deal in our home. The freezer was filled with many flavors: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, Neapolitan, chocolate chip, chocolate chip mint and in August, 3-gallon containers of fresh cantaloupe, chocolate chip, and banana ice cream from T & W Ice Cream, of Ridgewood, New Jersey. And, of course there were popsicles, ice cream sandwiches, and Fudgsicles. If ice cream levels were low, we were taken to the local Dairy Queen where I remember always ordering a soft serve chocolate cone dipped in chocolate. When I was a teenager or young adult, Haagan Daz introduced a flavor called. Vanilla Swiss Almond (chocolate covered roasted almonds blended in vanilla ice cream) that one of my brothers would eat a pint at a time, much to my dismay.
Today my pantry and refrigerator are filled primarily with fresh food: kale, fresh green peas, broccoli, sugar snap peas, celery, carrots, gold potatoes, asparagus, sweet potatoes, scallions, yellow and red onions, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, baby bok choy, avocados, oranges – both Navel and Sumo, Honey Crisp and Fuji apples, bananas, papayas, mangos, pineapple, melons, grapes, and an abundance of berries. In the summer, peaches, plums, cherries, and golden apricots fill my fruit bowl.
My cabinets are filled with whole grain flours and pastas, quinoa, brown rice, farro, lentils, dried fruits (sans the sulfites), walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and nut butters with one ingredient: nuts. Beans – garbanzo, kidney, cannellini, butter, aduki, and small red – are stocked and used daily. My cereal cabinet contains steel cut oats, muesli, Ezekiel Sprouted Flakes, and thick cut rolled oats.
My favorite tomato sauce by Frik & Frak – made with San Marzano tomatoes, Spanish onions, olive oil, tomato paste, kosher salt, whole garlic, fresh basil, fresh Italian parsley, black pepper, dried oregano, and fresh lemon juice – is one of the few shelf stable jars of food I do buy. The ingredients are real, wholesome and the sauce is better than my own homemade version. If I don’t make homemade applesauce then my store bought applesauce contains one ingredient: apples. Frozen vegetables contain just vegetables. Ingredients matter.
Every morning, I make a big bowl of fresh cut fruit and berries that serves as my breakfast and snack source all day long. And, every day my meals are filled with an abundance of vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds that always leave me feeling satisfied and grateful.
I don’t remember the last time I walked the middle aisles of a grocery store – most of what’s there doesn’t interest me. My sights are on the perimeters of grocery stores where the fresh food is. Discovering food and dishes made from fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes was a lifelong journey for me that was truly life-changing: I follow a whole food plant based diet because eating fresh food makes me feel better, nourishes my body, and keeps me healthy. And, most importantly, these are the foods I crave and want to eat.
But, there are also other reasons: eating fresh food and forgoing processed foods, animal products, and fast food is better for the planet and the animals – an estimated 80 billion animals are slaughtered annually to feed the population and I can’t stand the thought of a baby calf taken from its mother so we can eat butter, cheese, and ice cream (and so we can slaughter that male calf at 14-16 weeks for veal). Most people look the other way because if they see what’s going on, they would have to consider their choices and not live in a state of purposeful ignorance or denial.
To understand the word “nostalgia,” we need only look to the Greeks for how this word evolved. The Greek word for “return” is “nostos” while “algos” means “suffering.” So, nostalgia is the suffering caused by the yearnings or desires to return, or another interpretation is “to return to suffering.” How telling that nostalgia for childhood foods is virtually non-existent in me.