In Defense of Nostalgia

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I have a confession to make: I’m often nostalgic for a world in which I never actually lived. It’s no wonder that I grew up to get an MA in Cultural Memory, to work as a costumed interpreter in a historic house, and to start The RePast Project.

Brought up by children of European immigrants, I was immersed in old-world European culture from a young age, and I was riveted by stories of the past.  I always knew that all of my grandparents had come from faraway lands, and, it seemed, from a totally different era. In fact, it struck me as strange when I noticed that some other children’s grandparents didn’t have thick accents from some foreign place, that some grandmas wore sneakers, not heels, that not everyone's grandfather wore a suit.

Maybe because things seemed to me to have been quieter, simpler, and slower in the past, I was always captivated by it. As a child, my most persistent fantasy was to travel back in time. And, while, time-travel was, of course, out of my reach, holidays, rituals, and traditions connected me to the larger web of community and history that lived only in my imagination.

But the kind of nostalgia that has kept me fascinated by the past is sometimes identified by historians and politicians alike as sentimental, simplistic, and even dangerous. The past wasn’t in fact always quieter and simpler for most people, and it certainly wasn’t easier for almost anyone. Nostalgia can cloud our senses. It’s easy for us to gloss over aspects of the past that made it not so great, and to fail to recognize the many very compelling reasons why living in the present is better for most people in most places around the world—especially for women.  Idealizing and romanticizing the past can get us into trouble both personally and as a society (see Donald Trump and MAGA). Nostalgia can be the driving force behind everything from returning to a fraught relationship to White nationalism, sexism, and all kinds of intolerance.

The term nostalgia is a combination of the Greek words “nostos”, which means “a return home” and “algos”, which means “pain.” We can think of it as extreme homesickness or the longing for some irretrievable past. Many see this longing as unproductive, but does it have to be so? In a recent New York Magazine article, novelist Michael Chabon describes nostalgia as “the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.” His description is a good approximation of what I feel. Lost connection, I think, is what underpins my interest in traditional food and the culture and rituals surrounding it. Lost connection causes us to long for the foods we grew up eating, the people who served them to us, and the contexts in which we ate them.

So, how can nostalgia sometimes be good for us? Nostalgia is a tool for making meaning, and many psychologists now agree that leading a meaningful life is more important even than leading simply a happy one. Nostalgia can provide us with context and locate our lives somewhere in a narrative that includes our families, our friends, and our communities, as well as the meaningful moments we have shared with them.

Food is a medium through which memories, stories, and culture can be conveyed. It has the capacity to inspire nostalgia for times past, for people, and rituals that no longer make up part of our everyday lives. Nostalgia for traditional food can help us feel a sense of belonging and a connectedness to our culture while reinforcing our individual and collective identities. And, unlike nostalgia for so many lost things, our nostalgia for food doesn’t need to end with longing. It can, in fact, motivate us to recreate the tastes, experiences, and rituals around food that do indeed connect us to one another, and encourage us to find new ways to preserve our traditions and to make new meaningful memories together that we’ll cherish in the future.