With the rise of natural wine and the consequent preoccupation with making unadulterated, back to basics wine, there’s a certain romanticism surrounding making wine the old way with indigenous yeast and the use of amphorae. Sans sulfur, of course.
Ancient wine, though, was terrible as processes like fermentation and preservation weren’t fully understood. Up until the Middle Ages, they tended to be harsh and vinegary and often had to be diluted with water or mixed with honey and herbs to be palatable. On the other hand, today’s wines are only possible because of centuries of viticultural and oenological progress.
Similarly, while “a taste of the old” is a popular marketing refrain, people do flock to food that reminds them of a time past. I’ve heard laments about everything from how garlic used to have more flavour to why canned luncheon meat used to taste better.
And it’s not just the older generations. Younger people – who have never lived through these eras – are also flocking to places for a taste of nostalgia. Think kaya buns and kopi out of ceramic cups in a dingy coffee shop, munching on forgotten kuehs and enjoying Hainanese-style Western food from decades-old coffee houses.
The whole thing even works by proxy. Chefs often draw inspiration from the food they enjoyed as a child and, despite being highly personal memories, the dishes seem to trigger a positive response in the people eating their food. Grandma’s cooking is universal.
There’s a new word for this phenomenon: anemoia. It’s defined as nostalgia for a time one has never personally experienced. Coined by writer, filmmaker and graphic designer John Koenig, the word isn’t in dictionaries yet but many people have already enthusiastically adopted it. And if Internet zeitgeist and the malleability of the English language can be counted on, it’s a strong frontrunner for lexicographers.
Anyway, back to the food. Between two dishes equal in gustatory merit, the one with a better legacy will always evoke a better response. It’s why chefs tell stories, and why the wine industry is so big on education. Understanding something increases one’s enjoyment of it. As with any other form of pleasure like music or art, food – when done with intent and purpose coupled with a baseline quality – will attract an appreciative audience.
Even in the instances when nostalgia or any great idea is milked for marketing purposes, it works. To quote Oscar Wilde: “The value of an idea has nothing whatever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it.”