Food Memories: Utopian Visions?

July 11, 2020 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

I missed June’s blog. I’m making up for it by referring here to a short blog that appeared elsewhere last month. I wrote “Koulourakia Cravings” for a website called  Historians Cooking the Past.  I, like most other contributors, wrote of a strong food memory. It simmers up at certain seasons. When the light, the weather, the smells–all the senses–send me back to another place and time. And then, I reconnect to that past place by recreating that food with my own hands. In this case, it was the Greek sweetbread, koulourakia, that I wrote about, after baking a batch this spring.

Since first writing about utopian foodways before Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias appeared, I’ve thought and taught about them often. But what I’ve not asked anyone is this:  how are food memories utopian? And how is nostalgia connected to utopianism?

Generally, utopia, or the perfect place that is no place, is in an imaginary elsewhere in time and space. Often, visions of utopia are futuristic. Utopians seek to make the world a better place. They are forward-looking rather than past-gazing, right?

Actually, no. It’s past experiences–memories of them–and the current conditions–often dystopian–that motivate dreamers to visualize utopia.

What was it that I was trying to recreate when I made koulourakia last spring? What was it that I was craving that went beyond butter and sugar?

As the blog explains, I associate those sweet treats with time abroad in Greece, younger days of marriage and motherhood in New Hampshire, and even my early career in Missouri. Certainly those days were not all utopian bliss. I was not living in a utopian world. But the conditions of the current moment–amidst the Covid pandemic, sheltering in place, and teaching online–pushed me to recreate cookies that I associated with moments of sheer pleasure. Consuming cookies, shared with friends, neighbors and family, speak to me of a perfect place. Nostalgia is more than longing for the past. In the best cases, and in the healthiest conditions, it can be a stepping stone for moving forward in community. In the worst, nostalgia can be holding on to something unhealthy that should only be remembered for what it can teach us about how we may move forward differently.



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Etta Madden