Ceremony, Celebration, Consumption: How Cooking Evokes Nostalgia

Thanksgiving rituals reconstruct recipes and memories.

Food Features
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Even the most health-minded among us know the temptation all too well.

For eleven months of the year, you might be carb-conscious, fat-conscious, sugar-conscious, and great with portion control. And yet, the second we step into our parents’ kitchen to help cook, into our aunt’s dining room to set the table—or wherever it is we celebrate Thanksgiving—we can’t help but revert back to our old ways, scooping up second and third servings.

The overly simplistic scientific explanation is that sugar, starch, and fat taste great—and big portions of them, even more so.

Recent studies show that the psychology behind the feasting may be far more interesting.

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Only food has the power to create memories for each of our senses at once: We smell it before we can even see it, listen to it sizzle, touch it to ensure it’s not too warm, and finally, taste it. That intimacy forges a connection between cooking certain foods and emotions deep in our subconscious.

And Thanksgiving exemplifies that.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday in the long tradition of harvest festivals, which mankind has likely celebrated since we first transitioned from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies. Through the years, as our daily existence has gotten farther in distance and spirit from the farms that feed us, the holiday has evolved into one focused on eating and sharing food rather than observing the close of a harvest season.

As we migrate across the country, back to our hometowns, or prepare to host family and friends, there is a certain cadence to the events leading up to the celebration. For many, this alone conjures up long-dormant emotions.

That’s when the cooking starts.

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In a 1998 article in Journal of Business Research, Susan L. Holak and William J. Havlena define nostalgia as “A positively balanced complex feeling, emotion, or mood produced by reflection on things (objects, persons, experiences, ideas) associated with the past.” Just as we transfer emotion onto a childhood toy or a song can jog your memory, food can transport us to a specific place in time and play on our heartstrings.

Think of your grandmother’s pumpkin pie or your cousin’s famously creamy mashed potatoes: every time you consume or cook it, you’re reminded, if just on a subconscious level, how old you were when you first had it, or when you were first old enough to help make it; what the kitchen was like, how it made you feel.

Making these familiar dishes encourages the retrieval of emotions and experiences from the past. They do not just teach us about ourselves; they also symbolize the construction of family, the nurturing of intergenerational ties, the development of rituals, and the creation of self.

We participate in smaller versions of these food rituals every day of our lives without realizing. Seasonal foods, like that indulgent pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks, help us mark the passage of time, while simultaneously providing us with comfort of continuity amid change.

And chicken soup—some form of which is made in nearly every culture when someone is sick—is thus associated with comfort and wellness. You might say that the effectiveness of chicken soup’s healing power is just as much emotional as it is physical; I’d argue it could cure a heart break just as well as a common cold.

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The house is crowded and everyone talks over one another, it’s filled with the familiar warmth of pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg; perhaps you help your mom slice potatoes for that au gratin you request every year. Maybe there’s some ceremonious cooking fail—the turkey gets dried out, the stuffing burns.

Year after year, we perform these same acts—reconstructing our Thanksgiving recipes, and therefore our memories. Some of them have been passed down from an elder, while others are simply a seasonal tradition, like turkey and pumpkin pie, that we’ve ceremoniously consumed on this one day for years.

By the time we become adults, these Thanksgiving dishes become our own ritual. As we re-enter our parents’ homes, pick up their old set of knives, and start carving the turkey or scooping pumpkin into a pie crust, we assume the roles from our parents and grandparents.

It is a part of that same subconscious reminder of the past: when we’re faced with how far we’ve come from our childhood selves, yet how quickly the memories can still be called up.

Whatever the food is, cooking it keeps a legacy alive.

Thanksgiving table photo by vxla CC BY

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