A plain and simple dish, made from memory
I'm just a sentimental fool.
No matter how small, worn or downright useless an object may be, if it holds an iota of cherished memory, I will not easily part with it. In particular, I cling to remembrances preserved in words: letters, greeting cards, even tattered postcards written to persons who were gone generations before I was born. I find such written records as valuable as any heirloom because the memories evoked by words are more easily and broadly shared by those who were not present during the actual experience but for whom the sentiments are universal.
Sentimental words, preserved
I was reminded of this as I read Laura Miller's piece "A Recipe for Escapism" in last Saturday's Wall Street Journal Weekend (5/2/09), about the popularity of cookbooks for recreational reading (as opposed to their ostensible purpose as recipe collections). She wrote, "A cookbook can have an ambience, a philosophy, even a plot . . . Many people confess to reading cookbooks 'like novels,' that is, cover-to-cover, usually in bed and often with no real intention of preparing the dishes the author describes."
According to Miller, the appeal of modern cookbooks often has little to do with food itself and instead reflects a reader's desire for a culinary fantasy, to imagine oneself as a global gastronome, an aficionado of luxury edibles, or a master of kitchen technique. Even the folks-like-us themes she facetiously identified, such as Southern Fried Schtick à la Paula Deen and the autoblographies by the likes of food blogger turned print star Molly Wizenberg (a.k.a. Orangette), are about living a life a tad less ordinary through food writing. But the category that really drew my attention was what Miller referred to as Toxic Nostalgia, explaining it thus:
"America is a nation of people who can't wait to leave home so that they can start mooning over their hopelessly idealized memories of it . . . so recipes you would expect to provoke shudders become magically beloved when handed down by Aunt May or - better yet - Grandma herself. Why else would anyone want to whip up Mile High Bologna Pie . . .?"
Miller's dismay over sentiment trumping sense (of taste) apparently missed her own point: that these books have little to do with food itself and a lot to do with the intangible benefit the reader takes away. In the case of nostalgia, that take-away is often a feeling of comfort.
In a previous post, I wrote that nostalgia is one of four motifs of comfort food to which people turn in times of stress. The food itself can be almost anything - the most important quality is the sense of sharing and being nurtured that is evoked when they are consumed. In a 2008 study, "Nostalgia: Past, Present and Future" (Current Directions in Psychological Science 17.5: 304-7), lead researcher Constantine Sedikides explained the psychological benefits of nostalgia across cultural and generational groups:
"It is part of the fabric of everyday life and serves at least four key psychological functions: it generates positive affect, elevates self-esteem, fosters social connectedness, and alleviates existential threat."(Sedikides et al., 307)
Sounds good, doesn't it? But Miller may have a point in her tepid opinion of nostalgia in food; after all, too much sugar can spoil even dessert. The rose-tinted glasses that we don when looking at the past soften the rough edges of memory by obscuring the unpleasant or inconvenient spots, leaving an utopian image of yore. In her essay "A Plea for Culinary Modernism" (Gastronomica I Feb. 2001: 36-44), historian Rachel Laudan observed that calls for the return of modern food production and consumption to practices of the 'good old days' fail to account for historical facts - that food and foodways of the past were often unequally distributed, unhealthily produced and stored, and untenable for the realities of today.
"Were we able to turn back the clock . . . many of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need."(Laudan, 43)
Pitchforks and petticoats: not as bucolic as it seems
(Photo from Library of Congress/Flickr)
As the basis for large-scale social change in modern foodways, nostalgia is like a lace dress on the 800-lb gorilla - pretty but not enough to cover all that hairiness. But as the basis for purchasing a cookbook, it's as good a reason as any. From Miller's brief paragraph on nostalgic food writing, it's easy to infer what she believes is the reason for why writers wax poetic over dubious recipes (they're sentimental saps) but the question of why people love to read them is left open for opinion.
My answer? Quite simply, we're sentimental saps, too. We can relate to the writer's experiences of family birthdays, romantic dinners and holiday meals even if all the details - the food, the event, the people - are completely different from our own. What remains the same is (all together now!) the shared feelings of comfort, love and nurturing. Pick any food blog and read a post in which the featured recipe is accompanied by a personal story; chances are that many readers have commented with some variation on the words, "Thanks for sharing a wonderful memory . . ."
"[N]ostalgia strengthens social bonds. Nostalgia is a social emotion; it has been said that, during nostalgic reverie, 'the mind is peopled'*. Symbolic ties with close others are confirmed, and close others come to be momentarily part of one's present."(*Wildschut et al., quoted in Sedikides et al., 306)
The power of food to bring people together is most often viewed in the context of direct commensality in which all participants occupy the same place, space and time; nostalgic food writing demonstrates that physical proximity is not required to achieve social interaction. As we read an author's account of a special time filled with good food and loved ones, our minds are 'peopled' just as vividly but chosen from our own memory stores. In effect, their nostalgic reminiscences morph into our treasured memories.
But is shared nostalgia enough, as Miller wonders, to inspire someone to actually make a Mile High Bologna Pie or any other dubious recipe? Who would make an otherwise unexceptional dish simply because they could relate to the sentiment attached to it? Well, there's me . . .
A Mush-y Memory
Mr. Noodle's favorite, drizzled with honey
The first time I visited my husband's paternal Grandmother P, I spotted on her kitchen wall a small wooden plaque etched with childish lettering, which I was told was a special gift handmade by a six-year-old Mr. Noodle. Now, some grandsons might offer their beloved grannies macaroni necklaces while others proudly present works of finger-paint art or a grubby fistful of dandelion bouquet. This young lad snuck into his father's workshop and used a wood burning kit to etch an earnest and heartfelt message for his grandmother: 'Please Make Me Some More Cornmeal Mush.'
Normally, the only way I'd consider the word 'mush' appealing as a food is if it ends with 'room'. But I had to discover for myself what made it so special that a rambunctious little boy would painstakingly spell out his culinary plea for more of it. The verdict?
No dish could be more simple but when flavored with the memories of a boy and his grandmother, no dish ever tasted sweeter.
'Please Make Me Some More' Cornmeal Mush
This dish is so easy that I now feel silly for having asked my mother-in-law for the recipe! I really had no idea what cornmeal mush was until it was described to me as being similar to polenta. So, I prepared it first the way Grandmother P did, drizzled with honey, just as Mr. Noodle prefers. Then, I made a savory dish as one might use polenta, topped with Ginger Glazed Mahi-Mahi from Allrecipes.com.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup cold water + 3 cups water to boil
1 tsp salt
1. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Meanwhile, mix cornmeal, cold water and salt;
2. Slowly pour cornmeal mixture into boiling water, stirring constantly. If lumps begin to form, use a whisk to stir and break them up;
3. Continue to stir and cook until thickened then lower heat, cover and continue cooking for about 5 minutes more;
4. Butter a bread loaf pan and pour in cornmeal mixture.
(This is where Grandmother P's version slightly deviates from other mush recipes)
5. Preheat oven to 325°. Bake mush for about 10-12 minutes;
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool, then cover loosely with foil and refrigerate overnight;
7. When ready to serve, flip pan over a plate or cutting board to remove cornmeal 'loaf'. Slice like bread to desired thickness;
8. Melt butter or other cooking fat in a skillet on medium heat. Fry slices until lightly golden brown on each side;
9. Serve sweet with maple syrup, honey, jams or preserves, or savory with sautéed vegetables, grilled meat, fish or poultry.
Ginger Glazed Mahi-Mahi over Fried Cornmeal Mush