Are you turning to cooking your favourite childhood dinners for comfort during lockdown? You’re not alone. As sales of frozen food and baked beans rise, Stylist investigates why food nostalgia can be so powerful during a crisis.
I have a new favourite lockdown treat, and it isn’t banana bread. It’s not a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, nor a slice of homemade sourdough topped with salad newly-harvested from the window box. It’s a Penguin.
I bite off the opposite corners, slurp my (*not dalgona) coffee through it until it melts, then pop the whole thing in my mouth in a fit of Proustian revelry. I hadn’t eaten a Penguin in about 15 years before All This; now it’s the highlight of my afternoon.
Then there are the potato waffles I’ve started popping in the toaster as a pre-dinner snack, the Quorn nuggets I’ve started eating in stir-fries instead of tofu, and the Jacob’s cream crackers I’ve been sandwiching with peanut butter (squeeze until it wiggles through the holes).
But I’m not alone in the grips of what I’m going to optimistically call a third-life crisis. In between the photos of homemade bread, lavish dinners and spring onions regenerating on sunny windowsills, there has been a noticeable influx of less Insta-perfect feasting recently.
Heinz Cream Of Tomato soup. Spaghetti hoops. Babybels. Jacket potatoes with Marmite. Sales of baked beans have rocketed up 69%. Forget pancake cereal and focaccia art; the real lockdown food trend is nostalgia. If you like a lot of chocolate on your unprecedented global crisis, join our club.
Of course, the 84% jump in demand for frozen food in the week preceding lockdown (compared to the same time last year) was hardly surprising, as panicked shoppers grabbed food with the longest shelf-life in preparation for a worst-case scenario. But what’s more interesting is how many of us have fully embraced a diet of retro classics, long after kale, avocados and oat milk reappeared on the shelves.
As co-host of nostalgia-fuelled podcast Revisiting, Laura Kirk has been regaling listeners with her own culinary adventures in lockdown, which include introducing her Australian boyfriend to turkey dinosaurs and an Angel Delight renaissance (did you know you can buy it pre-mixed these days?). She started buying childhood favourites out of practicality, back when the supermarket shelves were bare of fresh produce, but they’ve quickly become a habit. “Honestly, it gives me something to look forward to,” she says. “Who would have thought, in 2020, that my main source of happiness would be turkey dinosaurs, potato smiley faces and a tin of spaghetti and sausages?”
Kimberley Wilson, chartered psychologist and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain, adds that she isn’t surprised nostalgic foods are proving popular during lockdown. “In practical terms, we have much less (if any) access to our usual sources of pleasure,” she says. “No favourite restaurants, cosy cafés or local pubs. Eating at home becomes one of the few remaining sources of pleasure within our control.”
For a while, it looked like cooking would be our salvation. Some 45% of Brits are turning to cooking during the pandemic, according to ONS figures, with a third seeing lockdown as a chance to improve their cooking skills. And I’ve been with them; rifling through dusty recipe books, soaking beans, fermenting my own kimchi, pushing the boundaries of what strictly can and can’t be done with a bottle of pomegranate molasses three years past its expiry date. All the time spurred on by the impetus to reduce waste, stay busy and find new ways to be creative (pomegranate pasta bake, anyone?).
Yet, as I write this, on week eleventy-hundred of lockdown, it’s fair to say the novelty is wearing off. I’m sorry, I have to make ANOTHER meal? I swear I just made one. While our enthusiasm wanes and our sourdough starters die quietly in a corner, the siren call of a simple beige dinner is getting stronger. “We just wanted at least one meal where you can shove a load of stuff in the oven and it cooks in 25 minutes and there’s no washing up,” says Kirk. Agreed.
But this craving for convenience food could go deeper than speed and ease. “Our earliest and most crucial relationships are mediated through food,” says Wilson. “The foods we eat in childhood become associated with not just being physically nourished, but emotionally cared for. It makes sense that when facing the greatest level of collective anxiety in a generation, we find ourselves drawn to foods that elicit those memories of safety and ‘simpler times’.”
“It might also indicate that we’re not feeling very much like ‘grown ups’ at the moment,” she adds. “In a sense the whole country has been ‘grounded’. Suddenly being back in a position of being told what to do by an authority figure might contribute to a kind of regression.” At a time when so many of us feel helpless, unable to control our situation and (let’s be honest) lacking faith in those who do, perhaps we feel more like the kids we used to be than the adults we’re supposed to be.
Regression has become a common theme beyond our plates, too. Friends that move in with their parents for lockdown have found themselves quickly slipping back into a teen routine of eye-rolling and door-slamming. Every Zoom quiz I’ve done in the past few weeks has included a round on either 90s TV themes, Disney cartoons or both. We want to escape to a time when our toughest dilemma was choosing which pop box to carry our Pringles in.
“I do think it’s a comfort thing,” agrees Kirk. “Being able to eat something that I used to eat in my childhood gives me a small, but very valuable, sense of warm fuzziness. The potato waffles are in the oven, I’m watching an episode of Friends, it really could be about 2002.”
Still, just like those old episodes of Friends we’ve been using as background noise, even the cosiest nostalgia can be problematic. With sustainability campaigners making headway in persuading us to care more about where our food comes from and what it’s packaged in, it’d be a shame if the pandemic gives us a renewed taste for the over-processed and the plastic-wrapped at the same time it’s cleaning up the atmosphere.
Then there’s the class subtext. During a crisis in which society’s deep inequalities have been thrown into sharper relief than ever before, we need to be careful that celebrating comfort food favourites doesn’t tip over into fetishising the kinds of food that millions of people live on without the luxury of choice or irony. With 43% of people in the UK worried about the extra cost of feeding their household, there’s something gross about living out a new bonus verse of Pulp’s Common People, where the bougie art student finds fishfingers a hilarious alternative to her favourite miso-glazed cod.
But I don’t think that’s what this is. I hope not. I think it’s more that lots of us have simply stopped caring as much about what we should be doing, another common narrative of These Times. Maybe we’re just using The Current Situation as a welcome break from the performative side of eating, resisting the pressure to show off. While all normal ‘rules’ are off, we’re choosing foods that… well, make us smile.
Nostalgia might not be a leveller but, as Wilson points out, it can be a unifier. “At a time when we’re all feeling isolated and cut off from normal life, talking about these foods (such as on social media) provides a familiar, shared cultural touchstone, helping us to feel more connected.”
And in the interests of sharing and connecting, here’s a little tip from me to you: eat your potato waffles dripping with butter and Marmite. And a side of kimchi, if you happen to have some to hand.
Images: Getty, Unsplash