Childhood Foods and Nostalgia

Animal crackers don’t taste like they used to. I came to this realization recently when I tried some. They taste a little too smooth, light, and bland compared to what I remember from childhood. I distinctly remember how much of a treat it was to have a box of animal crackers and how I looked at every animal before biting its head off.

My disappointment with modern animal crackers led me to think about other childhood foods. Four came to mind, and all of them speak to a certain aspect of my upbringing.

Bologna sandwiches

Pronounced “baloney” in my neck of the woods, these sandwiches were a staple of my childhood. I think I took them for lunch almost every day from kindergarten to 6th grade. One of my funniest memories is of my cousin and aunt throwing their bologna sandwiches over our babysitter’s fence so the cows in the field next door would eat them.

Wendy’s

My family rarely ate out when I was growing up. One treat that I looked forward to was eating at Wendy’s so I could dip my french fries in the Frosty. Even today, if I’m looking to eat fast food, Wendy’s is my first choice.

My aunt’s pancakes

I spent a lot of my childhood at my cousin’s house. His mom made the best pancakes–crispy around the edges and fluffy in the middle. Even though I rarely saw her between the time I left for college and her death in 2004, those pancakes are usually one of the first things I think of when she comes to mind.

Vanilla shakes

For an after-church treat on Sunday nights, my mom would make hot dogs and vanilla shakes. That meal made Sunday evening church much easier to sit through.

What’s the point of my culinary musings? As I made this list, I was struck by two things:

1. The relationship between the senses and the past. In this case, I’m discussing taste and memory, but one could just as easily make the case for the other senses. We all have music or scents that take us back to moments in time that remain meaningful. On a more intellectual level, historians such as Mark M. Smith have written extensively about history and the senses.

2. Nostalgia almost certainly makes these foods more enjoyable than I remember them. All of them are tied to memories of family members or moments. As David Anderson noted about nostalgia in his examination of plantation reminiscences, “happy memories are placed on a pedestal whereas unhappy memories are knocked off theirs” (107) [1]. There are unhappy memories that I could associate with each of the above, but instead, they’ve become special.

I don’t know if scholarship on this phenomenon exists, but if you have reading recommendations, I’d like to hear them.

[1]. David Anderson, “Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences,” Journal of Southern History 71 (February 2005): 105-136.

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