Why Food Nostalgia Is a Necessary Crutch

Without it, we'd just be eating a lot of bland, unhealthy food

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LM Otero / AP

The burned remains of Big Tex stand at the State Fair of Texas Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Dallas.

Big Tex died last week. The official mascot of the Texas State Fair, the 52-foot-high cowboy statue that greeted visitors with a mechanical “howdy, folks!” burned down. The official cause of death was an electric fire. Texas is in mourning. “Even though Big Tex wasn’t a real person, he was like an old friend,” wrote one Texan on Big Tex’s Facebook page. Exclaimed another, “We are heartbroken! Soooo sad! When he’s rebuilt, please make him look “vintage” and not all shiny and new!” I couldn’t blame them. Big Tex was the fair’s whole identity, his unironic visage emblazoned on every sign and t-shirt. I was there the day he burned. Without him, the Texas State Fair was just another fried food orgy.

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The difference between life with, and without, Big Tex illuminated something that has been bothering me for a long time. Our eating habits are, for better or worse, as transient and unmoored as a flock of bats at twilight. A new trend seems to wash over us every month: kale, gluten-free everything, juice cleanses, specialty burgers, “artisanal” pizzas, Greek yogurt. Even the pillars of American cookery — fried chicken, meatloaf, burgers — exist on cooking shows and food magazines largely as a platform for “exciting” variations. And yet we are just as constantly bathed in a wash of retro images, “legacy brands,” and food nostalgia. Planter’s recently brought back a new Mr. Peanut, voiced by Robert Downey, Jr., KFC has doubled down on promoting the legacy of The Colonel, and restaurants from coast to coast periodically drag out “their take” on stroganoff, beef wellington, and shrimp cocktails. Even Wendy’s, in attempting to get a fresh new look, wasn’t able to get away from the prim, pigtailed, cameo-wearing girl that it has been associated with.

And yet that kind of nostalgia is also trying too hard. I’ve spent a lot of time around marketing gurus, advertising creative directors, and even a “semiotic brand analyst.” The routine is always the same: they get put on, say, the Twinkie account, or the Miller High Life account, or whatever old-time brand is being resuscitated by its current owner. They all sit around brainstorming, and the first thing they say is, “what do you think about when you hear Twinkies? You think about your childhood. All the happy memories that came with it. You and your friends sat around in a treehouse eating Twinkies…”  A food that has no inherent value or interest or even, really, taste, thus comes before us almost completely made from expertly crafted nostalgia.

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But there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia done right, and one of the pleasures of eating as an adult comes from the sentimental associations we have from our childhoods. My wife is indifferent to White Castle and Yoo-Hoo, and that’s okay; she didn’t grow up feral in Atlantic City. Likewise, the obsolete dishes of yesteryear are worth revisiting, even if only to distort them; otherwise we would live in a historical vacuum even more than we currently do. But it’s worth thinking about just how much light the shadow of Big Tex (and Mr. Peanut, and the Green Giant) block out. The cold light of the generic food aisle is cold indeed, and might show us some an unsettling glimpse of the void in which we float.

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