The world of food and wine thrives on nostalgia. Culinarians chase down heritage tomatoes, ferment their own vinegar, and learn to butcher hogs in the name of “how things used to be” before the industrial food business created TV dinners and Twinkies. As we scour the Internet for authentic recipes, we imagine simpler times–real food, harvested from family farms, 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 hand-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 undrinkable. 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 free from suffering or 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? Worse, is this longing for the past a conservative resistance to the modern world. 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?
Longing for the past is the flipside of our obsession with progress. We live in a hyper-connected world of instant communication, but we most often communicate with people with whom we share few memories, where living together is more or less a recent accident of time and place. We are fascinated with novelty, expecting our browsers to feed us new stimulation every 30 seconds, but the new can become old in a matter of minutes, sucked into the dark matter of history by a new Twitter controversy. In this context, nostalgia arises naturally as an antidote to disconnection and discontinuity, a longing for a less fragmented world where we have more in common with others.
In fact, both our fascination with novelty and our fascination with the past are of recent vintage and deeply entwined. People thoroughly rooted in traditional ways of life would have no need for or access to nostalgia. Whatever losses they would mourn would not be for a different time but for losses suffered within their own time, the only time they knew. The idea of tradition is itself a modern invention made possible by our anthropological prowess at unearthing the past, which is now accessible only as institutionalized heritage preserved in museums and monuments. The more distant we are from our past, the more obsessed with tradition we become.
Nostalgia then is an attempt to patch up the irreversibility of time—to reconstruct a past which is irretrievably gone except as monument and memorial. Of course, this refusal to surrender to the irreversibility of time is itself a modern impulse. Thus progress and nostalgia are not antipodes. They need each other. Nostalgia is possible only when progress advances, and progress inevitably creates a heartfelt need for a reconstructed past.
The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Nostalgia that escapes the realm of imagination can breed monsters. On the other hand, the need to invent a past can be an attempt to create feelings of solidarity within a disadvantaged group as they strive for recognition, an understandable and sometimes effective strategy.
Rather than a return to the past, the contemporary fascination with wine and 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. The aim is to imagine an aesthetic ideal that was lost when the food and wine industry conquered all.
Perhaps we should just welcome anything that re-enchants ordinary life, that makes the humble act of preparing food and drinking wine an extraordinary event. No doubt, nostalgia is sentimental, clichéd, and easily marketed; and we should not be taken in by its untruths. But at least in the world of food and wine, it seems to me to sometimes make life better. We should not be too quick to disparage it.
This post is adapted from my book, American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, Chapter Seven.