Food & Drink

The Power of Food Nostalgia in Movies and TV

David Saracino/Thrillist

Some of our most powerful memories, as people, and as a society, revolve around food -- and a good filmmaker knows how to draw an audience together by tapping into that tasty brand of nostalgia. See a snack we used to love on screen and we’re instantly young again (we might even shed a tear, or laugh so hard we cry). See characters showing open enthusiasm for a once-popular entree and we’re transported to a different decade as swiftly as if we were witnessing 1970s muscle cars or teenagers doing the Twist. Subtle as they may be, here are just a few ways directors and screenwriters use food to make us feel ever-so-wistful.

To remind us of our childhood food fads

Every generation has their food obsessions. If you were a ’90s kid, chances are you chowed through thousands of Spice Girls lollipops in hopes of finding every one of the elusive 24 collectible stickers. And while those lollipops were delicious, it wasn’t about the candy. People wrapped up in food crazes don’t care about the journey, they are only interested in the finish line -- especially when that finish line is guaranteed to spice up your life.

It’s a type of mania that can sweep up an entire generation. Take the classic example of A Christmas Story. Anyone raised around 1940 (the year in which the film is set) remembers the promotions Ovaltine ran on radio programs like Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight. If you saved enough “proofs-of-purchase” from your Ovaltine jars, you could win prizes -- like a secret decoder ring. Ralphie drinks enough Ovaltine to finally get a decoder. He’s about to learn tonight’s first secret message. The only problem is: Ovaltine sponsors Little Orphan Annie. His naivety goes out the window when he learns the code is, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”

“A crummy commercial? Son of a b***h,” he says. We’re all better and stronger than these crazes -- and the fixation that once made us buy literally hundreds of Baby Spice lollipops -- but we’re still powerless to resist them. Anyone, even a sharp-witted kid like Ralphie, will throw caution, and tastebuds, to the wind when they’re chasing after something shiny.

David Saracino/Thrillist

Fast forward a decade to the coming-of-age tale Stand By Me. The character Vern is obsessed with cherry-flavored Pez. “If I could only have one food for the rest of my life? That’s easy: Pez,” he says, sitting around a campfire. “Cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.”

While the candy only made it to the U.S. in 1952, the first character shapes -- a full body Santa Claus, a full body robot, and a space gun -- were introduced in 1955 and were instant hits among children. And today, despite there being 1,500 different types of dispensers, Santa remains the most popular, so… looks like Vern was onto something. (We bet it’d blow his mind to know the Pez factory in Orange, Connecticut produces over 12 million tablets a day.)

And it goes beyond ’50s kids; anyone with a sweet tooth and an eye for kitschy collectibles could relate to obsessing over Pez dispensers. These candy dispensers, decoders, lollipops, whatever it was, provided an obsessive distraction for our characters (and for all of us at some point) from real world problems. A-bombs, World War II? Didn’t matter to Ralphie and Vern, they were strolling through their youth in a state of ignorant bliss, eyes laser-focused on the simple, food-based pleasures in life.

To bring us back to a specific era

The Duffer Brothers, creators of the sci-fi horror hit Stranger Things, only needed one item to convey the show's '80s time period: waffles. The “L’eggo my Eggo” campaign, first introduced in 1972, gained huge popularity throughout the next decade. When Eleven, a girl with psychokinetic powers who was raised in a lab, escapes and discovers this 1980s world around her, the brothers (twin filmmakers born in 1984) chose to define the decade with Eggos.

The waffles are something anyone from the ’80s remembers from their breakfast table...but moreso from the countless commercials on their television screens. “L’eggo my Eggo” was (and still is -- the company brought the slogan back in 2014) the perfect earworm. Even if it wasn’t yours, surely something else was. Commercial jingles and catchphrases get planted in our heads until they’re impossible to shake free -- but that’s not always a bad thing. They trigger memories that make us smile and wonder how we remember the lyrics to a catchphrase about waffles from 20 years ago while we can’t even remember our best friend’s birthday without a Facebook reminder.

David Saracino/Thrillist

While Eggos were already around during the 1960s, on the period drama Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner highlights other emerging staples of the era. In addition to the show’s five Emmy nominations for costume design (among other nods), it reflects the decade when Roger Sterling (John Slattery) says, “Look, we've got oysters rockefeller! Beef Wellington! Napoleons! We leave this lunch alone, it'll take over Europe.”

Both Beef Wellington and the Napoleon are from our friends overseas (England and France, respectively). Due to the success of Julia Child and her 1961 cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” food became more complicated and diverse during this time. Her European impact led America away from casseroles and TV dinners and towards artful cooking -- captured perfectly by the meals enjoyed during the extravagant and increasingly diverse meals on Mad Men. This migration of fancy international dishes continues to challenge adventurous amateur chefs to this day -- just ask anyone who has suffered a near complete mental breakdown trying to perfect the delicate balance between all of the ingredients that go into making homemade macarons.

To make us feel young, wild, and free

When you were a kid, your biggest problems were trying to get your crush to ask you to the dance and feeling painfully misunderstood by your parents. You yearned for an escape -- and sometimes all that meant was grabbing a slice of pizza with friends. You never forget how liberated and cool certain foods made you feel.

For Lorelai Gilmore, that food was Pop-Tarts. In Season 7 of Gilmore Girls, she starts to wonder if she only likes certain things because her mother hated them when she was a girl. “I can remember the first time I had a Pop-Tart,” she tells Rory. “I opened the little silver wrapper and I took a bite and I thought nothing had ever tasted so good. I thought it tasted like freedom. It tasted like I was my own person. The Pop-Tart tasted like freedom and rebellion and independence.”

In 13 Going on 30, childhood friends Jenna (Jennifer Garner) and Matt (Mark Ruffalo) -- who are reunited for the first time in over a decade -- are eating Razzles like they used to as young teens and reminiscing. Spoiler alert, she’s still 13 in her head, but for him, the simple act of eating candy with an old friend makes him wistful. “I bet I can beat you on the jump,” he says, challenging Jenna to see who can leap off a swingset and land farther.

Next thing you know, they’re in a playground counting to one, two, three… it’s a romantic comedy, so they naturally land in a position perfect for a kiss, but the point is: the Razzles revived within them a youthful energy and a time when something as simple as jumping off a swing was enough to serve as the most memorable moment of their day. (If that’s all it takes to regain childhood bliss, we’ll eat an entire Dylan’s Candy Bar worth of sweets, thanks.)

This stage of adolescence is universal, and food is the ideal symbol for it. Sometimes all it takes is one bite of a strawberry Pop-Tart for your troubles to melt away. We forget that as adults. We’re trained to feel so guilty when we stray away from the healthy. Quinoa this, whole grain that. When you think back to a time when you didn’t worry so much about every morsel of food you put into your body, you remember how free you were to think about everything else: friends, going to the mall, the new Cyndi Lauper record….

To take us back, for better or worse, to the school cafeteria

As soon as you started school, you quickly learned the quirks of cafeteria lunch. And while no one will miss Chicken Salad Tuesdays, you most likely harbor fond memories of Pizza Friday. So when a film or television show is set in that phase of life, those school dishes do more than just feed your favorite characters.

For 136 episodes of South Park, Chef (Isaac Hayes) cooked up his trademark salisbury steak -- an old staple in school cafeterias -- for Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny. “What could be so bad children? It’s salisbury steak day,” he says during Season 1, Episode 1 -- the first of many comments about the dish throughout his 10-season arc. Every time Chef brings it up, it’s an instant flashback for you. Because, well, you might not have liked your school lunches at first, but the familiarity grew on you. You could count on the lack of options, the soggy texture of... basically everything, and somehow you started to crave this stuff (maybe not the food itself, but the simplicity it represented.)

Whether your lunchroom served salisbury steak or, let’s say -- and we’re really just pulling this out of nowhere -- sloppy joes, there was something addictive about school lunch.

“Have some more sloppy joes! I made ’em extra sloppy for yuhs!” Who could forget the creepy lunch lady from Billy Madison? The use of sloppy joes in this lunchroom scene works on two levels: a nostalgic device for both the audience and Billy himself, who’s returning to school after all these years. He’s made to feel like a kid again through a meal that, generally speaking, only kids eat. And if you still eat them now as an adult, let’s just say, well… we’re coming over for dinner.

To help us relate to the characters

Creator and star Aziz Ansari made sure his show Master of None was chock full of references tailored specifically for millennials. His anxiety over ordering an Uber for a date-gone-wrong (“There’s an UberX that’s like three minutes away and there’s an UberBLACK that’s like 15 minutes away. Should I just UberX? I just didn’t want you to think I was being stingy.”) perfectly reflects dating landmines in 2017. It’s one of many ways Ansari reminds the audience that like you, his character Dev (a 30-year-old NYC actor) has lived the same millennial experience.

At a child’s birthday party a stranger runs up to him: “You’re that guy from the Go-Gurt commercial aren’t you? Ah, I knew it!” Dev’s been living off the residuals from his spot since presumably the early 2000s, when the squeezable tubes of sweet stuff were popular. “It’s been paying my rent for years,” he says. You know the feeling -- seeing a recognizable face when you’re hanging out. Like, if you saw the guy from Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” commercials at a party, there’s no way you wouldn’t run up to him and make a joke. (And if you have more chill than that, teach us your ways.)
 

David Saracino/Thrillist

This tactic is used again on the memorable Seinfeld episode, “The Secret Code.” Talking to J. Peterman’s mother on her deathbed, George Costanza starts discussing a fight with his fiancé over his ATM code. “She wants to know my secret code,” he says. “I don’t know. I can’t tell her.” But he would love to tell someone. No one’s in the room. Peterman’s mother is dying and not waking up. Seems safe, right?

“It’s Bosco,” George says. “You know the chocolate syrup. I love that stuff. I pour it in milk. It’s my favorite drink.” He’s relieved until she wakes up screaming, “Bosco! Bosco!”

The same way Dev and millennials remember Go-Gurt, George and Gen Xers have an emotional connection to Bosco, which was heavily advertised on television programs throughout the ’50s and ’60s. These things become so important to us that they creep into the most important aspects of our lives. George chose a delicious chocolate syrup to protect his entire financial well-being. Meanwhile, Dev wouldn’t have a place to live without Go-Gurt.

To make us feel we’re home

Homesickness is arguably the most powerful sensation food on film can make you feel. The play-turned-movie The House of Yes starring Parker Posey does it in an exemplary manner. Upon finding out that her brother’s fiancé (Tori Spelling, in an indie turn) grew up with an unemployed father, Posey’s wealthy, troubled “Jackie O” tartly asks, “Were you poor? Did you eat chicken pot pies?”

What her character didn’t get -- but that every latchkey kid watching instantly recalled -- is that growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, chicken pot pies were borderline magical. When you’re sans parent, taking care of yourself half the time, these puff pastry delicacies represent all the love and comfort of a traditional home structure -- in microwavable form. What Posey’s character saw as the worst, a whole mildly messed up generation remembers as the best.

Homesickness plays a pivotal role in the finale of Disney Pixar’s Ratatouille. When the caustic restaurant critic Anton Ego arrives at Gusteau’s in the last scene, he’s expecting to give it a terrible review. There’s no way they can impress his refined palate -- especially when they serve him ratatouille. But then something happens….

He has a flashback to when he was a boy. We see that his mother used to serve him the same dish. He drops his pen (he won’t be writing anything bad tonight) and devours the entire plate -- even using his finger to get every drop of sauce. What ratatouille is for Ego, maybe mac and cheese, meatloaf, lasagna is for the audience -- whatever brings you right back home.

Rebecca Strassberg is a staff writer at Thrillist who’d literally give you an Oscar if you mentioned 3D Doritos in your film. Follow her on Twitter @strassbooger.
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