The taste of home - why nostalgia foods are making a Covid comeback
Updated: Jun 24
Of all the tastes of home that were smuggled back to New York for expat friends after the Christmas break this year, one was more potently meaningful than others.
Tucked carefully among the Curly Wurlys, Scottish Blend teabags, Caramel Wafers, McCoy’s crisps, mature cheddar, and rough oatcakes (no particular brand, just make sure they’re “so rough, your mum warned you never to get in a car with them”), was a bottle of cloyingly sweet liqueur that, for many British teens, was their first taste of alcohol.
In a moment that was almost ceremonial in its hushed reverence – observed by two bemused New Yorkers – Tom cracked open the Warninks Advocaat, adding a splash or two of Sprite and a maraschino cherry. Voila! The venerable snowball – classic cocktail of the 1970s.
The taste brought back vivid recollections of Christmases past, of being surrounded by loved ones – a time and place that can no longer be reproduced physically, but exists, fully formed, in his head. He raised a glass and toasted his much-loved Nana, who died last year, and whose love of life (along with her penchant for a cheeky wee snowball) will be forever linked to the drink.
Food (and beverages) are inextricably entangled with our memories, whether they be of childhood treats (the white bread and butter sprinkled with sugar that my paternal grandmother would make me), family traditions (Dad’s Christmas trifle), or the post-swim fish and chips that means I can still somehow smell chlorine anytime I pass the local chippy.
All five senses come to this particular party: a cocktail of stimuli so powerful that just the smell of anything sweet and fried instantly brings to mind the fairground ... with its flashing lights, pumping disco, and the excited anticipation of thrills to come.
Scientists point to the part of the brain that’s responsible for storing memories – the hippocampus – saying that, because of our primal, biological need to eat, any information related to food gets special treatment. We needed those nuts and berries to survive, so you can be sure our brains are going to remember where we foraged for them.
The hippocampus also works closely with the parts of the brain that deal with emotion and smell, which could be another explanation for why food memories are so evocative.
In Waitrose, sales of rice pudding soared, while the Co-op said shoppers couldn’t get enough of desserts like dried trifle and custard powder
Then there's good old dopamine, the “happy hormone” that is produced when a particularly yummy food is eaten, and which, because of its intimate relationship with the hippocampus, can be triggered by the mere mention or smell of a beloved tasty treat (just start talking to friends about pickled onion Monster Munch or butterscotch Angel Delight and you’ll see what I mean).
All of which might help explain why, along with sourdough starters and bingeing on Bake Off, retro foods have made a massive Covid comeback. The BBC reported that internet searches for banoffee pie doubled in the early months of lockdown. In Waitrose, sales of rice pudding soared, while the Co-op said shoppers couldn’t get enough of desserts like dried trifle and custard powder (demand was up 738% and 336% respectively).
We weren’t just hungry for sweet things. Searches for Spam and corned beef jumped 50% between March and May 2020, with sales of tinned ham more than doubling. And sales of baked beans were up an explosive 69%.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand why. As we all continue to grapple with the uncertainty of what the pandemic will serve up next, the taste of something nostalgic, with its associated memories of security, warmth, and familiarity, can be intensely reassuring, reminding us that we’re not alone.
In his seminal book, À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, Proust describes how eating a madeleine with a cup of tea transported him back to childhood, vividly recalling his aunt’s house, the flowers in the garden, the local church ...
Likewise (but a lot less French), my friend Brenda can’t smell mince cooking without remembering the exact day she decided to go veggie (for a couple of months at least, before the novelty wore off, thanks to the smell of bacon). And Emma associates the smell of toasted rolls with the EastEnders “duff duffs” – signaling it must be time for The Bill.
“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it,” says Nabokov.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains the psychology to the BBC: “Food memories feel so nostalgic because there’s all this context of when you were preparing or eating this food, so the food becomes almost symbolic of other meaning.”
She adds: ”A lot of our memories as children, it’s not so much the apple pie, for example, but the whole experience of being a family, being nourished, and that acquires a lot of symbolism apart from the sensory quality.”
Deeply unpleasant tastes and smells can be equally evocative – for good reason. It’s all part of a survival tactic called conditioned taste aversion, and is the reason you hate oysters, having had a nasty case of food poisoning that time you were visiting Cornwall. Or you can never drink vodka and orange, because you got wildly and messily drunk on it at a house party when you were 17.
“The effect is so profound,” Hadley Bergstrom, assistant professor of psychology at Vassar College in New York tells the Huffington Post, “that even though you get sick hours after you’ve eaten the food, you’ll still make these extremely strong memories about what you ate and where you ate it.”
The science is so compelling that the link between food and memory is now being used to treat patients with dementia. In the same way that a nursing home might play a particular piece of music to trigger recognition and bring a sense of comfort, some specialized memory units are now serving meals that were popular during a patient’s younger days. Many older people lose interest in eating, so encouraging them to eat familiar foods they associate with happy memories can be a powerful tool to staying healthy.
Final word, though, goes to the clever clogs at Campbell’s who this month announced it was releasing limited edition scented candles of its best-selling Tomato & Grilled Cheese, and Chicken Noodle soups, promising to fill your home with notes of "roasted tomato, peppercorn and gooey grilled cheese” or "savory chicken, cloves and buttery crackers”. Sadly, if you were hoping to indulge in a touch of food nostalgia without the inevitable calories, I’m sorry to inform you that they’ve already sold out.
But I now have a sudden craving for tomato soup. Maybe with potato waffles and one of those little tins of spaghetti and sausages …
A version of this feature first appeared in Hood magazine.