Is food nostalgia inherently feminine?
Matt posed this question to his dinner companions at a recent Nostalgia Dinner.* This idea bubbled up when we realized that every dish was originally made for the participant who brought it by a female caregiver. Nana’s polenta, and Aunt’s pasta piselli, a grandmother’s manicotti: each dish was a comfort food eaten in childhood.**
This is not a first at Nostalgia Dinners. In fact, at all of the Nostalgia Dinner I have hosted, the majority (77%) of dishes were associated with female caregivers. Only one (5%) of all 22 dishes brought to Nostalgia Dinners was identified with a male caregiver.
When Matt posed his question, we considered it in light of our personal experiences. One participant pointed out that nostalgic foods are often comfort foods, and that (as Americans) we have been socially conditioned to received comfort from female caregivers. Meanwhile, female caregivers are also conditioned to show that they care through food (see Marjorie DeVault’s Feeding the Family and Food Is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America by Katherine Parkin).
Over the course of many Nostalgia Dinners, participants have defined nostalgia as a wistfulness for something lost. As adults, many of the participants long for a past, often in childhood or adolescence, when they were cared for to a greater degree. This wistfulness for past care is crystallized in the nostalgic foods, made by female caregivers, brought to Nostalgia Dinners.
Let us return to Matt’s question: Is food nostalgia inherently feminine?
My answer would be: no, not inherently feminine, but that in our cultural context, it is. As long as women are disproportionately responsible for carework and domestic foodwork, they will be associated with food nostalgia. In a cultural environment where men provided care through food, I believe food nostalgia would be coded masculine. Until then, I expect to see many more dishes made by grandmothers, aunts, mothers, and sisters brought to Nostalgia Dinners.
*Names have been changed to protect participant privacy.
**The ‘Italian Night’ theme of these dishes was, surprisingly, not planned. Only once everyone unveiled their dishes at the party did we realize the coincidence. I was not alone in reveling in the pasta-heavy menu!
Photo by Alex Rogala