The world of food and wine thrives on a heavy dose of nostalgia. Culinarians (“foodies’” in the vernacular) chase down heritage tomatoes, ferment their own vinegar, and learn to butcher hogs in the name of “how things used to be” before industrial agriculture created TV dinners and Twinkies. As we scour the Internet for authentic recipes, we imagine simpler times of family farms supporting family feasts consuming real food, prepared in homey, immaculate kitchens with fruit pies on the windowsill, and the kids shelling beans at the table. Similarly, the wine industry continues to thrive on the romantic myth of the noble winemaker diligently tilling a small vineyard year after year to produce glorious wines that taste of the local soil and climate.
Of course, in reality the winemaking of days past was not so romantic. Bad weather would have ruined some vintages and difficulties in controlling fermentation temperatures and unsanitary conditions in the winery rendered many wines barely drinkable. As to the way we ate in the not-to-distant past, for most people, food was scarce, expensive, of poor quality and often unsafe. Kitchens, if they existed, were poorly equipped and their operation depended on difficult, relentless work by women. Only the wealthy could eat in the manner approaching the quality of contemporary nostalgic yearnings, but that quality usually depended on the work of underpaid kitchen staff after slavery was abolished.
Nostalgia is a form of selective memory, history without the bad parts enabling us to enjoy the past without guilt.
Does this dependency on myth render our contemporary fascination with the foods of the past a kind of kitsch—a sentimental, clichéd, easily marketed longing that offers “emotional gratification without intellectual effort” in Walter Benjamin’s formulation, an aesthetic and moral failure?
No doubt nostalgia can be dangerous—sometimes people are prepared to die for their myths which they confuse with the truth.
The word “nostalgia” has Greek roots—from nostos and algia meaning “longing to return home” . Are contemporary culinarians and wine enthusiasts longing for a return to the “good” old days? I doubt it.
It seems to me there is a distinction between trying to return to the past in order to rebuild it vs. the appropriation of the past as a kind of aesthetic celebration in looking towards the future. Rather than a return to the past, the contemporary fascination with food traditions is a reinterpretation and recontextualization of the past with an eye toward a better tasting future, much as the rock traditions of the 60’s reinterpreted the old blues traditions to invent a new form of music.
On the question of whether this reinterpretation is a form of kitsch, I will have to think on that a bit—a topic to be revisited in the near future.