Being from the South, I know a little bit about comfort food. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, collard greens, biscuits, and peach cobbler are just a few of the dishes that make life worth living. Aside from tasting delicious and putting you into what’s colloquially called a food coma, did you know that eating certain foods can actually elicit feelings of nostalgia in the brain?
That’s right--eating certain foods can send you on a one way trip to memory lane faster than you can say, “More, please!”
First, What’s Nostalgia?
Nostalgia is roughly defined as a yearning or wistful attachment to the past. Sort of like classic rock buffs who think that there hasn’t been a single good song written since 1977, so they keep spamming the same record for the past 40 years. Nostalgia usually coincides with the feeling that the past was somewhat rosier and better than the present.
Obviously, there are certain problems with nostalgia. It can put unrealistic expectations on the present, and it can also skew how the past actually was. But sometimes it’s okay to leave all of those inhibitions behind and relive the good-ole days.
That’s what food nostalgia is all about.
What causes it?
When we think about memory, we have to understand that it doesn’t work in a simple, film-TV type way. We don’t just play back our memories in our minds like we’re sitting behind a biological movie theater. Memories are formed through the culmination of experiences that includes all 5 senses--not just sight. That’s why smelling your ex’s perfume might send you into a sad spiral, because it sparked some latent sensory memory that reminded you of him or her.
Food nostalgia does the same thing. Just like smelling that perfume, tasting food can spark those memories in your mind. Since we’ve learned that smell is the most powerful memory generator, and taste is closely associated with smell, it’s not very surprising that eating the right food could send you straight down memory lane.
Keep the Past in the Past
We’re not doctors or psychologists, so please don’t take our word as law, but it’s important to separate happy memory recall and unabashed nostalgia. While it might be nice to eat some food that provokes warm memories of your childhood every now and then, it’s not too advisable to stick with those foods all of the time. Usually those foods aren’t the healthiest (like that fried chicken and biscuits I mentioned earlier).
Interestingly, some scientists wonder about the role that food nostalgia will play in our children’s futures. Since home cooked meals are becoming scarcer, Alyn Williams thinks that our children might not experience it at all!