Oh, Mary

Nostalgia of the Senses

February 19, 2019
Maria Robinson

Evening has arrived. The warm air in the kitchen is awash with the aroma of cinnamon and apples mingled with savory herbs and freshly baked biscuits. The lights are low, and each steaming dish adorns the draped tablecloth like a jewel in a crown. It is time. 

The slightly dinged can with a ripped label emerges from the cabinet. It grinds open with some difficulty, but the jagged lid parts from the sides with a satisfying creak. A familiar thhhhurk sound is heard as the neon pink cranberry-based gel is slowly excreted out of the can, propelled by the sheer power of gravity. It bounces off the sides of the dish a few times then leisurely comes to rest, finally free from its aluminum prison but molded in its exact likeness, complete with rings etched on its torso and round indentations on both ends. It is sliced gingerly into identical circles, placed carefully in their own metallically-tinged juices. It bodes well for the holiday that the entire hunk came out in one piece, precluding the need to cajole it out with a butter knife.

For quite a few years after I began to cook holiday meals myself, many an unfortunate guest would find the scene above as they arrived at our Thanksgiving table. I am a decent cook, if I do say so myself, and enjoy cooking things from scratch on special occasions. So why would that particular item, something that one might even call nasty af, impose upon my otherwise homemade meal?

One word: Nostalgia.

Sensory reminders of the past are incredibly powerful. More evocative than words. They transport you to a place and time that you can never visit again and hold you there, enveloped in the feelings you once had, the life you once knew, and the person you once were.

For me, extricating that slimy cylinder from its can instantly brought me back to my childhood, setting the table with my mother using the good dining set she brought with her, well-packed, from her own mother’s home in Central America. Carving the free turkey from the supermarket and arranging the piping hot contents of 33 cent cans on those beautiful blue-edged china plates. It was ultimately a struggle meal, but it still felt magical. 

The mystery of what sticks

I’m sure that it wasn’t my mother’s intention to have me buy that three-for-one canned mess well into my adulthood when I could actually sort of afford to buy actual cranberries. She just wanted to make the holidays nice for my brother and I and didn’t have the money to spend on organic gourmet ingredients. But still it stuck.

When I look at my own daughter, I often wonder what will stick with her. Her childhood is constantly unfolding even as we get caught up in the daily routines of feeding, clothing, and bathing her and our Sisyphean attempts to get out of the house each morning in one piece. Will she remember the dim glow of the small string of lights that adorns our living room window all year round, the earthy taste of warm homemade corn tortillas, or the soothing hum of the coffee maker as it squeezes out a brew thick enough to chew on, way too late the evening? It’s anyone’s guess.

Nostalgia plus: Like the past, but better

The question remains though: with all these lovely memories to spur me on at the grocery store, why have I moved on to buying fresh cranberries for holiday dinners?

Well, because wistfulness for days gone by can only carry you so far. I eventually got tired of coagulated jelly infiltrating my otherwise carefully planned holiday meal. The feeling of warmth gradually gave way to cold, canned disappointment.

When you try to scratch the itch of nostalgia, it often feels inadequate. Once the glow of familiarity wears off, you realize that the candy you loved as a child is a little too sweet, the old movie you used to watch a little more racist, and the album that shaped your adolescence a little cheesier than you remembered.

A product that truly captures the full effects of nostalgia and keeps you engaged not only engenders familiarity but actually recreates the exact feeling you had at that point in the past. It doesn’t fade in the harsh light of day, and the excitement it causes is just as much due to its own merits as the blush of reminiscence. It achieves what so many (many, many) movie sequels fail to do. It riffs on the original and actually improves it.

If at some point in the future, some absolute genius invents a gelled, cylindrically shaped cranberry sauce that tastes fresh but looks like home? You bet I would try it. For old time’s sake.