Saturday, 26 September 2009

How Nostalgia Shapes our Food Fantasies

I love McDonalds. Seriously.

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 Tea
Food 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 Crumble
I 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 Cereal
Breakfast 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 Noodles
Later, 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.
Somewhere 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 Delight
Perhaps 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 Proclivities
Don’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 Innocence
Strangely 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 Nicer
In 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 Urges
So 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 Fantasies
When (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.


Anna said...

You've hit the nail on the head in regards to the tactics I use in guiding my 11 yo son's taste for foods. I know how hard it is to shed the preferences for those foods we loved in childhood. Knowing my son has a higher risk of developing diabetes is a powerful motivating factor for me. There was no diabetes in the family history 12 years ago; then I was diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes during my pregnancy and now have Impaired Glucose Tolerance, plus now my mom, one of her siblings, and his son (my cousin) are diagnosed with T2 diabetes. We also discovered through antibody and gene testing that we have have problems with wheat/gluten, though the symptoms were subtle (our son carries genes from both sides of the family that predispose to gluten problems so there's not point in tempting fate).

So rather than provide him foods that not only don't nourish his growing body, but also don't foster long-term health and wellness, I ditched the processed cold breakfast cereals my son loved so much, the breads, the cookies, etc. (and what parent doesn't like the convenience of the breakfast, lunch, or snack a young kid can fix himself?). It's much easier to do that now than later when his food tastes are more fixed. Sure, for a few weeks it created conflict, but ultimately, I am responsible for what food comes into this house and he started enjoying other foods more.

Sure, he likes to try the junk his friends eat. But he's already figured out it often makes him feel awful; as he gets older, he's finding the junk less and less tempting.

Does giving up wheat and most forms of sugar mean he never, ever gets a sweet treat? No, I bake some coconut flour cookies or rich custards now and then, sweetened with a bit of maple syrup or sometimes honey. And we enjoy dark chocolate and homemade ice cream. So it isn't a life of deprivation, but at the same time, it's a way of eating that recognizes that treats that are constantly consumed are no longer treats.

As he spends more time away from home and has to make his own eating decisions, it will be up to him. He's already noticed, even at his young age, that many of his friends who eat a lot of processed "empty" foods have behavioral problems at school, so I think he understands some of the reasons I choose the foods I do for the family.

Mark Lee said...

Great little dissertation on the relationship between experience and food. Your suggestion has much to commend it; many of the same foods (cheesy noodles) and food places (McDonald's) that factor into your food history also factor into mine. Food nostalgia must play a significant factor into the way we feel about unhealthy though tasty foods, but not all. It seems that societies exposed to the evils of hyperflavored, over-sugared, super-salted foods generally fall rapidly into the intoxication of them unless there is some choreographed social restraint.

Methuselah said...

Anna - sounds like you have some good policies in place! My folks became increasingly conscious of health issues around food as I got older and whilst the larder still contained some unhealthy treats, they made it clear what was healthy and not healthy to eat. This seems to have worked well because I now have the discipline to eat healthy diet (most of the time) while beset from all sides by treats and junk food.

Mark - I like your phrase "choreographed social restraint." I don't know much about it, but I have a sense that this what happened to the Aborigines when they were introduced to sugar (but a lack of any accompanying choreography) - and hence why their incidence of diabetes and heart disease went through the roof.

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it: the "larder" is called that for a good reason...

Nelson Beads said...

Bread smothered with butter, sugar and cinnamon and then baked.

Beefaroni, pizza and Hungry Man chicken dinners.

Going with mom through the new McDonalds drive thru and seeing with awe on their arches the number of hamburgers they'd sold. Tasting the hot, salt-encrusted french fries cooked in tallow and dipped in sweet ketchup, washed down with a chocolate milkshake.

Milk duds and jujubees brought home by my parents from Friday night bowling and put under my pillow while I was asleep.

The smell of fresh-baked bread and sugar cookies that filled our home when grandma was visiting.

Thanks for the memories this morning.

Andrea said...

I agree! McDonalds definitely reminds me of my childhood. Especially the combination of smells made up of their fried chicken nuggets and their bbq and sweet and sour really takes me back! Your post reminds me of this book I just started reading called Mindless Eating by Dr Brian Wansink of Cornell. He has done years of research on why we eat what we eat and says that each day we make more than 200 food related decisions, 90% of which we aren't even aware of. You should check it out if you haven't already. Great timing with this post, I love your blog!

Asclepius said...

I have to say that Sunday lunches based around lamb at my grandmother's house remind me of my youth.

After 10 years a vegetarian, going back to eating lamb has ticked all the nostalgia and paleo boxes! Win win!

Methuselah said...

Joanne - thanks for sharing your own memories. I think there's something especially compelling about freshly baked bread - even though I have no childhood memories of it. I guess that's why supermarkets deliberately pipe the smell around their aisles!

Andrea - I have been meaning to pick up a copy of that book since hearing Dr Wansink interviewed by Jimmy Moore. Thanks for the reminder.

Asclepius - in fact roast lamb was usually the precursor to the apple crumble at my own Grandmother's house, so that's one of my favourite roast dinners too these days.

Aaron and Marcy said...

Amazing post.

It really spoke to me. I've been struggling with wishing I could eat like 'normal' people, and I've come to realize it's not that I want to eat like them, it's that I want to be blissfully unaware like them. I don't really want that unhealthy food, I want that innocence.

Thank you so much for writing this post.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Damn it! And this was going to be a fasting day...

Jezwyn said...

The foods that my Mum made me feel like an absolute pig for enjoying was candy, and pork crackling/fatty chops. Now I have zero interest in sugary candy, and pork fat is healthy! I think one of the reasons that I have no problem being a disciplined adherer to Primal because I can finally tell my Mum that her years of low-fat angst and oppression of my food choices were wrong, so I'm not playing her games anymore (nor able to justify any 'falling off the wagon' with "Well, my Mum broke her diet all the time...").

My guilty pleasure food has always been crispy white bread, butter, and brie! Now when I see a gorgeous, crunchy loaf, I still get a rush of intellectual cravings, until I remind myself that the tasty part was the dairy, which I can still enjoy on occasion!

The rest of my nostalgic foods have Primal equivalents - pizza, pancakes, oatmeal (made with almond flour and psyllium husks), never mind the potential for custards and cookies and ice-cream... :) Too bad I'm only eating meat and eggs these days - the boost to my well-being from this restrictive diet means that I haven't even thought about Primal treats in weeks!

Methuselah said...

Jezwyn - sounds like you are supremely dialled into Paleo at the moment - nice going. I, too, find that a lack of interest even in Paleo treats is a sign of being totally in tune. Right now I am still munching on creamed coconut after meals and having the occasional nut binge... but I feel a period of staunch and willing adherence approaching.

In your list it was the custard and cookies that got my attention. Not sure whether you meant this, but I reckon they might go together well!

Deline said...


I come from BBS/HIT world of similarities, but thanks to your blog and a few others, I've started to explore this world of Paleo eating.

I'm no where near eating any sort of healthy foods, but I have managed to cut down on the grains so far.

I still drink milk (2% instead of fat free) and at least I'm lucky enough not have a sweet tooth (I've always had the habit of never ordering deserts). I still need to increase more vegetables and kick the fried chicken & potato chips to the curb. One day at a time I think.

Thanks for listing your receipts, I'm going to give them a try.


Methuselah said...

Thanks Deline - great to hear you're making changes for the better. Very few people make the switch overnight and hopefully you'll start to notice benefits in your digestion and energy levels, which will encourage you to take further positive steps.

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