These days I’d rather boil my head in a vat of engine oil than actually eat the food - but it’s not just the food I am talking about. It’s the idea of McDonalds I love.
McDonalds reminds me of times when I was younger, cared less about my health, less about my wallet and frankly less about everything. It reminds of days when watching morning TV, visiting the ‘drive thru’ and then adjourning to the local pub were regarded as busy; of days when a perfunctory visit to the university campus made for a positively hectic schedule.
Toast and TeaFood seems to feature heavily in the landscape of my nostalgia. My earliest fond food memory is of my maternal Grandmother’s morning tea and toast. She would creep into my room with a plate of crustless white toast triangles, smothered in butter and accompanied by sweet, milky tea. The aroma would lull me awake. It smelled of family outings, of treats and mornings with no school.
Apple CrumbleI imagine many people have food memories forged in the kitchens of their grandparents. My paternal Grandmother captured my imagination with her apple crumble; when I visualise the house where we would join her for Sunday roast dinners, I can still fleetingly recapture the smell of sweet, stewing apples and slightly scorched flour.
Creamy CerealBreakfast was clearly important to me as a child - I recall being determined to get to the kitchen first so I could secure the ‘top of the milk’.
In those days in the UK, glass bottles of full fat milk were delivered each morning by the milkman. If the bottles had been kept still enough, there would be a few inches of cream clearly separated from the rest of the milk at the top of the bottle. Skilfully poured, this could give you the equivalent of single cream with your cereal. Better still, if there were two or more bottles, I could risk incurring my Mother’s irritation by taking only the very creamiest bits from each.
My favourite breakfast was two Weetabix soaked in cream and covered uniformly and generously with white sugar. I associate it with sunny kitchens and the excitement of a day ahead.
Cheesy NoodlesLater, when we spent time abroad, I discovered instant noodles. I would cook them for myself as a snack. While the noodles were simmering I would grate cheese into a bowl - lots of it. I then poured the cooked noodles on top of the grated cheese and stirred. The result was precisely the kind of cheesy, salty, gooey dish I loved.
My memories of that country are of beach-combing at dawn, buffeted by warm tropical wind, of trips into the jungle to chase impossibly large butterflies and insects – and of eating noodles and cheese. The food and these experiences are somehow inextricably bound.
HeinzSomewhere in my psyche there is a place for Heinz. There is a loose association with childhood which it’s hard to define. I can see tins with the Heinz logo sitting alluringly in cupboards. Again there is the sense of a sunny kitchen.
When gripped by a bout of food nostalgia I find myself fantasising over tomato soup with grated cheese and buttered bread; or spaghetti rings on buttered toast with grated cheese on top. Mmmmm. Clearly I have a thing about cheese.
Butterscotch Angel DelightPerhaps the food I hanker for most is butterscotch-flavoured Angel Delight. My Mother would buy these sachets of powder as a dessert. As per the instructions she would add milk, blend, then leave and in the fridge to set. The result was a delicious, mousse-like pudding. The butterscotch flavour was divine.
At some point I decided to make milkshakes using the powder. In theory this meant using less powder than indicated by the instructions, but with each successive milkshake, the ratio of milk to powder shrank - until in reality I was creating a kind of butterscotch paste; the thicker the paste, the more exquisitely sweet the taste. Once again, my penchant for goo is evident. Of course when there was ‘top of the milk’ available, I would use that instead of milk…
Dietary ProclivitiesDon’t get me wrong – neither my Mother nor Father encouraged me to eat these things. I would hate to give the impression I was some kind of neglected urchin desperately inventing his own meals in the absence of parental interest. In fact my Mother cooked splendid meals for us at the traditional times, paying due attention to the prevailing views of the time on what was healthy.
The fact is that the evolution of my dietary proclivities took place at unsupervised, between-meal snack times, often covertly. If I knew I was under observation, I would moderate. One of the reasons for placing the grated cheese under the noodles was to conceal its true extent.
Nevertheless, clearly the availability of the foods was a factor in my developing a taste for them.
Lost InnocenceStrangely enough, I have singularly failed to indulge most of these nostalgic fantasies at times when I have fallen unceremoniously from the Paleo wagon. Apple crumble is the only one I have tried – and that was because it was available by chance. It was nice – but the experience was somehow a one-dimensional sensory episode that failed to recapture the associations I have cultivated over the years.
So whilst there are associations between certain foods and happy memories, I think more broadly it’s about innocence. Not necessarily the general innocence of childhood, but specifically the innocence of consequence. Even as a McDonalds-munching student, I had not yet acquired any real sense of certain foods being bad for me; and I was in any case utterly indifferent to health threats, being still at an age where mortality was a foreign concept.
Innocence is the one ingredient that cannot be added to the experience of eating these foods now. I could surely make myself a batch of butterscotch-flavoured Angel Delight (they still sell it)… but I could not recapture the experience of eating it with total impunity and utter abandon.
Perhaps this is why I have hesitated to indulge my nostalgia fantasies even when I have allowed myself a holiday from correct eating - and perhaps why the impromptu apple crumble experience didn’t live up to expectations.
In a sense, finally ‘getting it’ around the Paleo diet is a moment when innocence is lost. I remember experiencing a certain sadness when I realised I would never go back; when I realised, for example, that I would never again eat cereal or toast in the morning. Sure, I knew I could treat myself to either one whenever I wanted, but what I could never recapture, unless someone wiped my memory, was the sense of routine around those foods – the comforting feel of a simple, pleasing habit.
Junk Food does Taste NicerIn a crude and immediate sense, the foods from my childhood memories probably do taste nicer than healthy foods. Otherwise, why would it be such a challenge to wean ourselves off similar carb-heavy, sugar-laden, salt-encrusted offerings?
I’ll be honest and admit that for me a slice of supermarket cheesecake with its ingredients list that reads like the back of a shampoo bottle, is an experience that transcends any roasted organic chicken with butternut squash and seasonal vegetables. They are not in the same league. Food scientists, blundering morons though they might be, have at least managed to fool our taste buds to that extent.
Yet, when my palate and body have been cleansed of all such garbage (the cheesecake, I mean) and I am living on a strictly Paleo diet, I learn to take a pleasure in my food which is fundamentally and intrinsically rewarding in a way that the cheesecake and its evil associates could never be.
Memory-Driven UrgesSo whilst I am not blaming our love for junk food entirely on childhood associations and experiences, I do think that to some degree it drives and shapes our urges.
I wonder how my present-day food fantasies would be different if my childhood had been populated by Paleo treats? What if my Mother had only kept the larder stocked with nuts, seeds and dried fruit? Or if my Grandmother had woken me with peppermint tea and a bowl of fresh berries, nuts and coconut cream? The irony, of course, being that such foods would have been regarded by most physicians of the time (and, dare I say it, many now) as unhealthy:
Nuts? Coconut? Good Lord Madam, what about all that fat? No, no, no – what your son needs at snack time is something low fat with roughage – have you considered spaghetti rings on wholemeal toast with margarine?
Shaping our FantasiesWhen (and if) a mini-M comes on the scene, Mrs M and I will be doing some careful thinking about how to handle this. On the one hand, you cannot protect kids from junk. They have to know it exists and they have to come to terms with how to moderate its intake. After all, they will inevitably encounter it at friends’ houses and in the playground.
Yet, I don’t have any fond memories of eating food in the playground, or at friends’ houses or even of buying treats from shops when out with my friends. My nostalgia centres primarily around family experiences. Perhaps by providing our kids with positive emotional associations with healthy foods, we can contribute to shaping their urges and fantasies in later life.