For the last few months I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out why everyone is so obsessed with Serial….
Serial, a spin-off of NPR’s ‘This American Life’, is a wildly popular podcast about a journalist trying to solve a 15-year-old murder mystery. Listeners downloaded and streamed weekly installments of this real life ‘who dun it’ set in Baltimore County, Maryland and made it one of the most popular podcasts in the world. For the past few months I’ve been asked over and over again if I listen to it, sometimes after I say I grew up in Maryland and sometimes not. (It’s a nice change of pace from the usual follow-up question, “Have you seen The Wire?”)
What is so fascinating to me about Serial is that it employs a decades-old medium. While streaming and downloading are relatively new in terms of the history of the world, Serial’s method of storytelling through audio is old-school. When I think of Serial listeners it reminds me of old-timey pictures of families gathered around a radio, intently listening to a weekly program. It’s the same thing just 70 years later and through headphones.
Look at the current dining landscape, and you can see the same thing happening. This use of the antiquated to tell a story. It might sound cheesy, but every restaurant tells a story. The food, the ambiance, the wine or bar program all come together to convey a message to the diner about what the chef and the staff value. One of the methods that chefs, mixologists and others in the industry are using to tell their story is nostalgia.
Nostalgia is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Science has found that humans use nostalgia to connect with other people and “counteract feelings of loneliness, boredom and anxiety.”
You can see traces of nostalgia everywhere in restaurants today. Vintage cookbooks and cocktail menus, mismatched antique plates, mammoth wood-fired grills; it’s everywhere and it’s across the country. Nostalgia in restaurants is powerful because it comforts diners in the face of increasing urbanity and technology and it comforts and gives a sense of purpose to those that work in restaurants. In other words, old things make us all feel like everything is going to be ok.
At Ames Street Deli, a brand new restaurant in Kendall Square, guests can order a sampler of homemade toasts with butter and jam. Toast is one of the most basic foods and one that we all know. It’s what your mom used to make when you stayed home from school because you were sick. Toast was the first thing that I learned to “cook” without my mom’s supervision. I made stacks and stacks of buttered toast sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar for my cousin and I to eat while we watched “An American Tail: Fievel goes West.” I can picture myself ordering the toast tray at Ames Street Deli: sitting at the bar, adorning a point of perfectly browned bread with a (hefty) helping of butter and homemade jam with a half-empty cocktail not too far away. I’m instantly comforted and I’ve never stepped foot in that restaurant. That’s the power of nostalgia. That’s why diners in San Francisco are lining up for toast and coffee at Trouble Coffee Company. That’s why people love pastry chef Christina Tosi’s cereal milk flavored soft-serve in NYC. When you taste something, or even think about the taste of something you grew up with it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling and as we become more urban, more disconnected from the pastoral, we need more comfort. We go to restaurants to escape the maddening pace of the technology and politics swirling around us. Restaurants are a refuge for chef and diner. The food world’s preoccupation with the antiquated provides the emotional nourishment that we all crave right now.
Restaurant design has begun to mirror this. Wood-fired ovens and mammoth grills have become focal points of dining rooms while open kitchens blur the line between front of the house and back of the house, and subsequently, chef and diner. Menus mirror this as well.
Molecular gastronomy with its delicate presentation and abstract technique is no longer the center of attention in the culinary world. Now serving humble ingredients in their most natural state is the motto. Smoke, whole roasted vegetables, whole roasted animal parts, even what the food is served on is antique. ‘Quirky’ glassware and dishes are now talking points for front of the house staff. Things that have long fallen out of vogue are now very much in style. Those mammoth, wood-fired grills are used to impart flavor to intensely humble cuts of meat or vegetables from a farm not far away and the smell of smoke greets diners at the door of their favorite spot. We can all think of the smell of wood burning and it smells like campfires and barbecues and good memories.
Merry “Corky” White, a food anthropologist and professor at Boston University says that chefs and diners’ obsession with the old is happening because of two things. One, a larger part of the dining public is willing to try new food so when a chef “uncovers” an old cooking technique or ingredient, it’s thought of as ‘cool’. “Right now it’s cool to be in the ‘retro’ niche- it’s part of the search for newer foods as a way of trying new things.” Two, people want the things that remind them of home, without having to think about what ‘home’ was, or wasn’t. “Recreating older things can be a way of saying, ‘I wish we really did look like a Norman Rockwell painting.’”
Nostalgia is a universal, very human emotion that connects us all. We sit in crowded restaurants or tiny apartments and we enjoy the feeling that washes over as we eat our toast or what ever we grew up eating and drinking. It tastes like home.