Food is often the portal to instant nostalgia – an irresistible siren call from our youth.
It seems the older I get the more vivid the memories of the flavors of my childhood are to me. They transport me back to the warm comfort of girlhood in a tidal wave of emotion.
My appreciation for entertaining & food was first born of my mother who is a consummate host, generous beyond compare. I still remember the flurry of activity: the sights, sounds and aromas that swirled around me as my mother was preparing for a party.
Though known for her lavish entertaining, it was her everyday food that first infiltrated my heart. Like any working mother with a brood of 5, Mom had her revolving menu of go-to meals.
Then there were those special occasions when we were allowed to eat TV dinners on TV stands in front of the TV. To some this may have been considered low brow (powdered mashed potatoes?!), but to our uninitiated taste buds, it was pure magic.
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(Remember the pre-microwave foil packaging?)
Then there was my grandmother who did her time at the burners & whose oven was always in high demand. She was Pennsylvania Dutch & cooked with a strong sense of place & copious amounts of butter.
Even now my mouth is watering at the thought of her chicken pot pie, & a big ol’ pot of chicken stock simmering on the stove is my trigger smell for a crashing flood of recall.
While she wasn’t a four-star chef, her homey, cozy food nourished my soul & was the comfort that sustained me as a child going through my parents’ divorce. If she had faults, I never noticed. She loved me when I needed her most. She loved me when it mattered.
In violation of today’s child-rearing codes, whenever we came for a visit, my siblings & I would spill into the warmth of her old-fashioned kitchen to find her & Pop-Pop’s round wooden table piled high with our favorite sweet & savory treats.
For better or for worse, we’re often conditioned from toddlerdom to eat a certain way. In some instances, the adult palate is made up of childhood preferences that have hardened into prejudices. Such is the case with me & pie, which still links me to my grandmother in her apron.
And who among us isn’t dogmatic about our family repertoire of Christmas cookies? The holidays just wouldn’t seem the same without them.
Since my grandparents on my father’s side migrated from the former Czechoslovakia to America, while growing up, pierogies were like our french fries. The dough-cheese-potato combination made for the greatest little packages of pleasure ever invented.
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For kids in neighborhoods everywhere, the ice cream man was like the Pied-Piper. When we heard his bell ring, we scattered in all directions, making a mad dash toward our parents, begging for enough change to purchase a frozen treat. The mere thought of a Good Humor Chocolate Éclair or Strawberry Shortcake immediately plunges me back into 1975.
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Although our diets have evolved in complexity & with more attention to nutrition, in my vast catalog of food memories, the appeal of nostalgia sometimes trumps the actual quality of the food.
Such is the case with onion dip made with Lipton soup mix (still like it when I run into it at a party), Charles Chips (once delivered straight to our door in a giant tin), and my mom’s chocolate cake with cream cheese icing whose secret batter ingredient is mayo –gasp! (still as delicious to me today as any fancy French chocolate torte). A trip down memory lane often overcomes culinary snobbery & health guidelines.
The bond that held my mother–in-law & me together had much to do with food. When I was still a teen, she taught me how to cook Greek favorites like spanakopita (spinach & feta pie) & pastitso (baked macaroni), initiating my lifelong love affair with ethnic fare.
There’s no denying that the fabric of our lives is made up of food memories. Like all family recipes, they are more than a collection of ingredients: They are stories. Rich in reflections, food is bound up in life’s big and small moments and the family traditions that surround them.
Our fondness for the foodstuff of our childhood & those who prepared it brings greater meaning & intentionality to the everyday domestic task of nourishing & feeding those we love today.
Which foods provide trips down memory lane for your taste buds? Which treats do your kids or grandkids now peer through the little window in the oven to see?
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