Vittles 6.16 - Nostalgia

How Lockdown Nostalgia Kept Culinary Traditions Alive, by Emma Gibbins

During the heightened anxiety of the first weeks of lockdown, something odd started happening to my eating habits. Perhaps it was the new reliance on cornershops and East Asian marts but my diet regressed to childhood. I raided the instant noodle shelves, both the familiar ones and the ones I never got to try; I started making project sandwiches again, armed with more than the Breville that my childhood attempts were honed on; there was a constant supply of fish fingers in the freezer and Milky Ways in the cupboard (the best chocolate bar ─ don’t @ me). Although I also bought a kilo of Goa sausage, these were less nostalgia for the food of my mother than for the food that I created as a teenager, the first foods that gave me agency over my eating habits. Nostalgia was a guiding force throughout those uncertain weeks. I started reading old books, watching favourite films. I restarted The Sopranos from scratch. I did everything but order a Gameboy Colour and start playing Pokémon Yellow again (to this day, the most blissfully happy I’ve ever been).

I’m sure I’m not alone. But as Emma Gibbins perceptively points out in today’s newsletter on nostalgia ─ the first in this week’s series looking back at what we’ve learned during lockdown ─ now that phase has faded away, perhaps we now have nostalgia for lockdown itself? Real life has started to impinge on us again. I’m currently back at work in a full time hospitality job while simultaneously editing this newsletter ─ our pandemic lives and our previous lives are colliding and we have to choose what we want to take from them. It’s complex in a way that lockdown wasn’t, when the choice was ready-made for you. Perhaps when we have forgotten all the bad things, we will only remember the good things about lockdown? I’m sure the luckier ones will control the narrative. Instead of Great Depression flapper shindigs, the throwback parties of the future will take place over Zoom while eating fish finger sandwiches.

But when does nostalgia become a dangerous emotion? The most commonly pitched item to Vittles in its first weeks were variations on ‘why I miss restaurants’; I wasn’t surprised when this ended up being the sole focus of restaurant critics for an entire four months. The reopening of restaurants on Saturday was a chance for writers to linger over all the details they’ve missed: the dining room, the buzz, the thrill of not washing up, untrammeled nostalgia for a lifestyle that has been denied to them. I don’t judge anyone for going back to restaurants right now ─ in the absence of a competent government I think we all need to make our personal choices and weigh things up. But it is irresponsible to treat a very grey area like it’s black and white. From talking to restaurant workers (NOT owners) and those who eat out a lot, it’s clear there’s still a huge amount of anxiety and uncertainty mixed in with the excitement. In this case the limits of the word ‘nostalgia’ is tested; a better one would be ‘saudade’. What is unspoken is this ─ that if restaurants were our safe place to enjoy ourselves without anxiety, then they are not coming back the way they were for a long time. Not while we worry for ourselves and for others. The only truly irresponsible thing is pretending that they will.

How Lockdown Nostalgia Kept Culinary Traditions Alive, by Emma Gibbins

Whether it’s a comforting bowl of Matzoh ball soup, a freshly-baked pie like your nanna used to make, or a plate of lasagna that just feels like home, we all have certain foods and dishes that transport us to another time and place.

No matter where we are from, food has taken on an even greater resonance during the pandemic as a way to access pleasure. Ask ten people what those transportive foods are, however, and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Our nostalgic culinary memories are a product of where we come from, where our parents come from, and the experiences that make us who we are. Those memories determine not only how we relate to the past, but how we live in the present and remain connected with those who share our cultural identity. 

Aleks Angelova is originally from Bulgaria but now lives in London, and has found herself with a growing desire for mekitsi during the pandemic. “Ask a Bulgarian what mekitsi is and they’ll know!” she says. For the uninitiated, this breakfast favourite — a fried dough served with everything from powdered sugar to soft cheese — has been part of Bulgarian culture since the 5th century. For Aleks, its unmistakable smell brings back a flood of happy memories from childhood, when she would stay with her grandparents during the summer school holidays. “I remember my grandma waking up at 4 am in the morning and making the dough. Once it had gotten fluffy, she would start frying it and my sister and I would run around her stealing pieces. We couldn’t wait to stuff our bellies with it. My family gathering around to taste it is one of my most precious memories.”

These longed-for comfort foods from our respective culinary traditions needn't be complex. Honouring cultural heritage can be as simple as keeping hold of family recipes passed down through generations. Food blogger Victoria Ubochi has always been inspired by her mum's cooking. Although she was born and raised in London, Victoria identifies as Nigerian first because her parents — who are from Imo State in the south-east of the country — always integrated Nigerian values and culture into their family home growing up.

“One food from my culture that I absolutely love to this day is puff puff, a popular Nigerian street food that’s similar to a doughnut,” Victoria explains. Throughout lockdown, she has been cooking it according to her mum’s recipe: “It’s usually served as an appetiser or a dessert with ice cream and is a popular party food at West African celebrations. I always remember getting excited when we would make it with my mum.” 

Nostalgia is about more than just fond memories. It’s a longing to go back to places for which we have strong emotional ties and associate with a sense of safety and contentment. 

Luana D’Elias, originally from the state of Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil, feels “full of joy” when she thinks about her grandmother’s food. A favourite dish of her childhood was macaxeira, fried cassava with beef, the taste of which is intrinsically tied to her grandmother’s house. “I can still taste the perfectly seasoned meat with rice and salad, washed down with pomegranate juice from the tree outside.”

Now that she lives in London, it is difficult for Luana to see her family regularly — and the pandemic has only exacerbated that. It’s now been two years since she’s seen her grandmother.

“I’m not sure when we’ll even be able to go back,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking because I wanted her to meet my daughter who was born last year. I want my daughter to know my side of the family and to learn Portuguese. And of course, I want her to taste my Nan’s delicious food!”

Even outside the pandemic, many of us use food as a coping mechanism against challenging circumstances, relying on it as a distraction when bored, as a comfort when sad, or as a reward when we want to treat ourselves for a job well done — regardless of whether hunger is present. When we’re struggling, reminiscing about our past opens a gate back to a world that doesn’t exist at present, causing us to crave those foods that feature in some of our happiest memories.

Pia Holler is originally from Kollow, a small village in Northern Germany. One of her favourite German meals is Rinderrouladen (bacon, onions, mustard and pickles wrapped in thinly sliced beef and then cooked), served with Blaukraut (cooked red cabbage), Kartoffelklöße (potato dumplings), and red wine gravy. 

“When I first left for university, my mom used to ask me what food I missed the most so she could make it when I went home to visit, and it was always that dish,” she says. “Now it’s kind of become a tradition to eat it at least once when my siblings and I come back. Funnily enough, it’s something I’ve never cooked myself when living away, so it remains one of those things that I look forward to when visiting Germany.” 

Like many others, concerns over the spread of coronavirus has meant that Pia hasn’t been able to visit home since Christmas. She tells me she finds herself thinking about these kinds of home comforts now more than ever.

GP and medical advisor Dr. Aragona Giuseppe says that the “majority of food cravings are caused by parts of the brain that are responsible for pleasure, reward and memory.” He says that we establish positive food affirmations as children which we carry through with us to adulthood, with things like “stress, loneliness, and boredom” triggering cravings for certain foods.

For writer Aliya Arman, who is originally from Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, that trigger food is ambasha, a lightly sweet flatbread flavoured with cardamom and black sesame seeds. “It’s served as a centrepiece during coffee ceremonies, which are an important ritual in my culture,” Aliya finds ambasha to be particularly nostalgic because it is only baked for special occasions, or when guests come over. “I associate it with good company, celebration and laughter.” 

During lockdown, Aliya and her family had ambasha at home for Orthodox Easter. “It definitely felt different as it was the first time we weren’t eating it after mass, surrounded with the rest of the Ethiopian and Eritrean community. Knowing that we couldn’t break the bread into multiple pieces for a large crowd made us realise how much we associate the two together.”

But Aliya has been able to recapture some of the joy of traditional coffee ceremonies by finally learning how to make ambasha — something she grew up watching her parents do. “Despite several botched attempts, it’s been one of those really fun experiences to come out of lockdown,” she says.

You don’t need to be in a diaspora to have strong food nostalgia, nor does it have to be for food with a heritage and story. Like so many others, being out of work for four months has left me looking for new ways to keep my brain occupied and itching to reconnect. Recently, I chatted with a friend as he prepared a feast of curried beans on toast. I looked at the rocket salad I’d just made, feeling a sense of envy that, despite being generously flecked with olives and feta cheese, my meal wasn’t more appealing. Later, Dairylea Lunchables were the main talking point of another conversation with friends. We recalled the rare occasion we would open our school bags to find we’d hit the jackpot and agreed that these were basically the ‘90s equivalent of a payday lunch in the adult world. 

Aliya explains how being mixed race and therefore “connected to two very distinct cultures simultaneously” makes the role of food nostalgia even more complicated. “When I think of oven food and corner shop crisps, that feels nostalgic in a way that connects my childhood, primary school friendships, and a throwback to Noughties culture,” she says. “Eating fish finger sandwiches watching Dick and Dom in da Bungalow at a friend’s house on a Friday evening feels just as culturally reminiscent as having injera and wot with Ethiopian family friends for me.”

Piers Zangana, Director of Susa Comms, thinks displacement has played a major role in how we’ve related to food during the pandemic. “As somebody who is of Persian origin, I know that food often makes me feel closer to home and family,” he says. “People who have been cut off from their usual access points to their past will now be craving more of the foods they used to have. It’s what makes them feel closer to safety. I think we all reach for our comfortable and safe places in times of uncertainty.”

Now restrictions are starting to ease and we gingerly anticipate returning to normality, there’s every chance lockdown itself will become its own source of nostalgia — a time in which we inhabited the ramparts of our kitchens and circled back to our fondest childhood food memories. Slowing down and indulging in delights of the past has given many of us a new perspective and an opportunity to acknowledge the things that really matter in life. Yet now I find myself thinking more and more about the future. Despite how much we’ve relished the Proustian joy of home cooking, perhaps we are now looking forward to savouring all those things we took for granted: spontaneous trips, unplanned conversations, and ─ only when we’re ready ─ the immense pleasure of dining out, of sharing food and experiences that will create new memories of their own. 

Emma Gibbins is a writer, editor (and occasional doodler) based in London. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_emmagibbins, or view her portfolio here. Emma both wrote and illustrated this newsletter, and was paid for her work.

If you have been enjoying Vittles, then you can contribute to its upkeep by subscribing via Patreon https://www.patreon.com/user?u=32064286, which ensures all contributors are paid. Any donation is gratefully appreciated.