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Food Nostalgia and Queerness, Part One
The Afflicted Imagination
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In 1688 Johannes Hofer, a nineteen-year-old medical student at the University of Basel in Switzerland, presented his dissertation to his master, the eminent Johannes Harder. In it, the ambitious Hofer identified a new disease, a sickness spreading through primarily young people in the heart of Europe with the speed of plague.
The symptoms were fever, weakness, and despair, an inability to perform even simple actions. Hofer created a name for it by splicing together two Greek words: algia, “longing,” and nostos, “return home,” to form, νοσταλγία: “nostalgia.” Hofer’s disease had appeared at a moment of European turmoil, a period of dislocation on a continent roiled by serial wars. Hofer’s approximation of ηοεταλγια in German, heimwehe or “homesickness,” failed to capture the desperation of a generation of displaced young Europeans: boy mercenaries gone to fight in one of the German Principalities or in France; girls forced by hunger to leave the countryside and work as maids in far towns. They longed to see the villages of their birth, to hear their mothers’ voices, and pined, physically, at the lack. Those stricken with the disease of nostalgia were suffering, in Hofer’s words, from afflicted imaginations.
The remembered taste of lost foods was an essential part of Hofer’s new sickness of longing: milk with the asphodel sweetness of the grazing on a particular flank of a single Alpine valley; the breakfast porridge—the beer of one’s village, boiled and steeped into stale bread from one’s village oven—delivered a bracing tang unable to be duplicated anywhere else.
Nostalgia did have a cure. For mild cases, a thorough purging of the stomach should suffice; for deeper-rooted longing, bleeding through cuts made in the arm, a leaching of dangerous humors, was crucial for the sickness to ebb.
Another, more difficult, remedy was also the simplest: The afflicted needed to return to the place they ached for. But unless a sufferer of nostalgia was wealthy enough to keep a carriage, or could arrange to be carried in a litter over rough roads (and of course those remedies were unthinkable for the poor village boys and girls Hofer examined), a remedy of return was impossible. Except for a privileged few, nostalgia would be curable, if at all, only through radical intervention.
I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, a boy in the late 1960s, with a family that found our highest purpose—our existential meaning—in nostalgia. The present was a fearful and fallen place, assailed by news tapes of teargas-hazy campus protests; by a war that shattered men in distant jungles and left them brittle, like my needle-tracked older cousin Dennis; by predictions of a catastrophic earthquake that would split California from the continent and leave us drifting in a savage ocean.
For comfort—deliverance—we clung to the food of a past lost to me: the food my parents and grandparents had known as kids in San Francisco. They were dishes with emotional context for them, things with embedded narratives of feeling. My mom passed along her nostalgia to me through stories as through an endometrium, to nourish my as yet unformed appetite for the past. The foods she described from her childhood—the ones my maternal grandparents mourned in tales of family dinners on vanished tables were blank except as souvenirs of faded relevance, rooted in a San Francisco neighborhood—Butchertown—that no longer even properly existed.
My dad’s nostalgia for his dead mom’s cooking in the projects where he grew up was a catechism I was tasked with memorizing, to embrace as the defining morality of who I was. The Sunday dinners she splurged on because she scraped all week: rosemary legs of lamb, the drippings gilding a bed of potatoes roasting under the meat; creamed vegetables: fresh shell peas, shucked and shaved corn, sliced carrots, or cooked spinach, stirred into white sauce made so deftly from flour, butter, and milk it ended rich and satiny as cream; steamed Dungeness crabs in season, the tomalley spooned from the shells, whipped into butter, spread on French bread toast. All of it perfect, located so far back in time that any current judgment was impossible. Yet my longing to taste it was chronic, an incurable need that matched my longing to be close to my dad, a man who almost never talked about his feelings; who kept me at an emotional distance. Who stopped kissing me goodnight when I turned ten.
Because while I had a vague sense that those dishes, in my dad’s experience of them, had been about love: the poor boy in the projects with a mother who cared enough to lavish on him Sunday lamb, butter, sweet corn, milk she could turn into cream, a whole vocabulary of nurturance. But I knew them one generation removed, nourished on stories about them. I was expected to imagine how they tasted, left to reassemble a complicated story about my father’s unspoken feelings for me from a language locked in his memory, a language I was left to piece together on my own. He expressed feeling through a code of food stories, but he left me no decoder to make sense of it.
For more than 50 years, since James Beard invented the term in his 1964 memoiristic cookbook Delights and Prejudices, the concept of taste memory has existed as a kind of cloud server of food culture. Any taste that evokes in us some early memory possesses the prime value of food today, which is that amorphous quality of “authenticity.”
San Francisco sourdough the tourist kiosks at airports began to call it, like bread’s a box of choco-dipped cremes from a century-old manufacturer with grandma branding, or a jelly made from beach plums or plugs of taffy supposedly (supposedly) moistened with saltwater from a stretch of nearby ocean: all the foods conferring the authenticity of the local for travelers in the market for connection with a place; for souvenirs making bogus claims of terroir, the inimitable taste of the local. The Boudin bread bowl is a coffin filled with clam goo.
So much of cooking is making sense of what has come before. What is a recipe if not a map for guiding the cook to bygone sense impressions? For conjuring an experience? A recipe is an intimate connection to the past, forged in the present imperative.
My dad is gone now. Yet my family’s stories of food in the past were ways to control me: to keep me bound to a rigid, patriarchal idea of family, a model that would not allow for queerness. How would I keep my love for my dad alive—the little unspoken contract we’d made long ago, that I would believe his narrative of the past as an act of devotion—while not surrendering to its toxic imperatives? How do I honor both my family’s stories, the sense of meaning they nourished me with through stories of food, and queerness, the active rejection of those stories? Can I discover for myself an affirming power in food nostalgia?
Read Part Two.