Back to the Future Food

Stole this pic from

I was at a potluck brunch this morning and was amazed to find, among the offerings, Tater Tot Casserole and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with Hot Dog Chunks. When I marveled at these comfort-food throwbacks, one woman said, "Now, why didn't I think of that? Tater Tots, hamburger, and a can of cream of mushroom." Another added, "Retro food is in. I saw a recipe for that green, layered Jell-O salad."

Retro food is indeed in. My own twelve-year-old daughter told me the next dessert she wants to learn to make is Knox Blox! Having grown up on '70s food like meatloaf and mac & cheese and fish sticks (varied by Chinese specialties which my mom made from scratch--she made her own pot sticker wrappers!!--because there was not yet any such thing as processed Chinese food), I understand the appeal. Sometimes you just crave something churned out in your childhood by Big Ag. To paraphrase Michael Pollan's urgings to eat "Real Food," sometimes you just want to eat something fake.

I wonder if the renewed yearnings for convenience food concoctions come as a backlash to the naggings of the organic/sustainable/local/"real"/holier-than-thou movement, of which I am a part. Now we not only have to eat to live, but we have to eat to salve our consciences and save the world. And what we eat to accomplish these lofty goals changes. One week it's raw, the next it's pastured, the next it's vegan, the next it's hydroponic. Meat kills us. No--it's sugar. No--it's carbs in general. Scratch that--it's pasteurization and antibiotics!

At least everyone agrees those delightful convenience dishes masquerading as food are awful for you and going to kill you. The reasons they're going to kill you may vary, food study by food study, but no one is going to argue that Tater Tot Casserole increases longevity or is in any way traceable to actual plants and animals grown on sweet little farms. It's fake, it'll kill you eventually, and it tastes awesome. Sometimes we just want that simplicity.

The challenge to the good food movement will be going beyond the reasons why we "should" choose certain foods over others, to creating a culture of comfort and joy around good foods. We reach for that fruit or vegetable, that sausage or cheese or salmon filet, those dried beans or foraged mushrooms, not because we oughtta but because we want to. Because we know the farmers and swap recipes and questions and tips with them. Because those foods remind us of the farmers market, where we hear music and run into friends and sometimes treat ourselves to a fresh, luscious meal at a picnic table. Because those foods remind us of our mom, or when the family came together at the end of the day to talk about our lives.

I just know when my kids hit their teenage years, they'll make some lousy food choices just to bug me (processed foods as adolescent rebellion!). But I'm hoping, when they hit middle age, the comfort food they reach for will be the good stuff--not just because it tastes good, but also because it reminds them of those good, simple times.