Photo from the Department of Agriculture Extension Service (1946)
When I was a kid in West Virginia, I could not have cared less about ramps. The unofficial state vegetable, these Appalachian leeks were traditionally harder to avoid than to find and, despite their pungency and weed-like profusion, were celebrated with festivals and cook-offs every spring. But not long after I moved to New York, ramps did, too. They occupied prime real estate at the Union Square Greenmarket, where I first spotted them going for $10 a pound. I've written about this moment of discovery before; it was striking because, once the city forced me to think about ramps at all, I found hilarious the notion of status-buying something that can be dug up for free. Ten dollars was a fool's price, a sophisticate's version of bumpkin. Fast forward a couple years from that day at the greenmarket, and what began as a city's flirtation with country flora has become a thorough reimagining of old-fashioned ruralism, realized in pickled, Edison bulb-lit detail. Which is curious.
But this is not a story about ramps, really. It's a story about nostalgia, and its intricate power over our tastes. When I brought this idea up to Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, he cited one of the more persistent food trends of late: cupcakes. Sure, Davis said, cupcakes are great. But taste doesn't fuel our ongoing obsession with them. "The most delicious thing about a cupcake is the fifth-grade birthday party," he said. "We're all eating that when we have a cupcake." Davis' cupcake theory tracks; we all remember that birthday party. But how many New Yorkers remember foraging for ramps?
David Foster Wallace once wrote that it's hard to know when you're bullshitting yourself, morally speaking, and I think it might be true gastronomically speaking as well. One needs to leave an experience before earning the right to wistfulness, after all, and in that mental expanse, gymnastics are inevitable. Do we become nostalgic for a taste? A feeling? A memory? The mere suggestion of any of the above? These are questions trained on every bite of our personal history, from the blue boxes of Kraft to the smiling sacks of Happy Meals, but they're perhaps most crystallized here, in this modern metropolis where symbolism is crammed into every Instagram-filtered forkful of beet salad. How are we so imbued with nostalgia for a moment, a story, that isn't our own? We want our jams hand-jarred and our chocolate in wrappings reminiscent of Victorian wallpaper, but we're children of the late twentieth century. We didn't grow up eating in fields. Yet this pioneer narrative is so apparent, so moving, that we adopt it in unquestioning rapture, a bunch of hungry Whitmans cooking (and tweeting and tagging) the songs of ourselves.
I'm guilty of this sentimentality, at least. My fixation on Appalachian food culture owes something to my home state, but my intellectual curiosity is also accelerated by the emotional recall of a past I never had. How did I become an agrarian preservationist? At best, I'm a stepchild of rural life; I grew up aware of it, but not a participant in it. I knew which neighbors to go to for bumper crops of tomatoes and zucchini, but I couldn't tell you how to plant either one. Only lately have I even wanted to.
Perhaps the appeal, to us twenty- and thirty-somethings going about life like it's one long home-ec class, is that georgic chores like composting food scraps or butchering pigs are just beyond our memory's reach, but not so far beyond it that we can't imagine them. The distance makes them perfect focal points in our digitized pastoral—learning how to distill whiskey or pickle okra in a Mason jar is at once old-fashioned and modern, comforting and adventurous, nostalgic and novel. It feels familiar, even if we've never done it. (And it doesn't hurt that these activities are tactile antidotes to the inevitable emptiness of ordering dinner online and liking status updates.) Besides, making mayonnaise sounds more fun when buying a jar of Hellmann's remains an option. Culinary nostalgia, like any nostalgia, is borne of romance and distortion.
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong about feeling homesick for a memory that isn't yours. When we spoke, Davis suggested I read the Greek anthropologist C. Nadia Seremetakis. In "The Memory of the Senses, Part I: Marks of the Transitory," Seremetakis wrote of her futile search for a succulent Greek peach of her youth. With the memory of this fruit's taste bright in her mind, she described the defeat of realizing the breed no longer exists, and she lamented that, by comparison, modern peaches—food in general, even—had no taste. "The younger generation, whenever present, heard these stories as if listening to a captivating fairy tale," she wrote. "For me the peach had been both eaten and remembered, but for the younger generation it was now digested through memory and language."
We can forget how powerful eating is, but an act so indivisible from the persuasive sensations of intimacy and sensuality is bound to inspire devotion—in our case, an allegiance to homemade aprons and backyard chicken coops that feels genuine despite inconveniences of time and space.
Davis suggested that this taste for the past is especially American. Other cultures have rules about what, when, and how food is consumed, what he called the grammar of a strong food culture—Italians never eat on the street, for instance, and always serve pasta on its own plate—but America does not. In that vacuum, it could be that our retrospective attachments function as security measures, structural reinforcements. They're also perhaps unique to America's eternal-immigrant status. Maybe we're a generation in the midst of a tribal reawakening; our parents grew up in the apex of a patriotic, homogeneous America, and now we want to examine the parts of the whole. Davis cited third-generation Jewish New Yorkers perfecting gefilte-fish recipes, but you can also fill in those cultural signifiers with young farmers replanting their families' fallow plots or young Korean Americans trying to replicate their moms' kimchi. We live in an inauthentic time, Davis said, and these are authentic experiences. And comforting ones, at that.
We should be cautious, though, about just how fashionable this postmodern pioneer moment is, how glossy and spiffy and so very marketable. (Do you think our grandmothers would have bought $10 pickles?) There's a fine line between stylized sentimentality and irony. But, if we're being optimistic, perhaps even expensive flea-market kitchenettes or just-so antiqued restaurants come from the same subconscious impulse that revisiting your grandmother's church cookbook does. We're eating our autobiographies. But maybe we should stop overpaying for the privilege.