Remembrance of Cakes Past: The Power of Food Nostalgia

In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a novel by Aimee Bender, nine-year-old Rose tastes emotions in food. When her distraught mother bakes a birthday cake, Rose has trouble getting it down.

The premise doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. Bender’s novel speaks to the pleasures and social anxieties of comfort food, however we choose to define it. Food carries memories. As we ingest a given dish, we also consume associations that we’ve made over time.

“When we associate foods with memories, the effects are profound, impacting how good we think foods taste, as well as how good those foods make us feel,” says Alexandra Sifferlin in “The Science of Why You Crave Comfort Food.” We only have to watch the final scene of Ratatouille in order to see this unfold.

Nostalgia feels good because “the reward centers of the brain are activated,” writes Heidi Moawad, MD, in “The Brain and Nostalgia.” Tastes and smells can trigger nostalgia, which in turn “stimulate metabolic activity and blood flow in several regions of the brain, particularly the frontal, limbic, paralimbic, and midbrain areas.”

When I was nine, I had a penchant for Devil Dogs, Ring Dings, and Sno Balls—that hot pink coconut and luscious mallow casing. I liked anything sugary and soft. I preferred to have dessert after every meal.

But I was short for my age. My grandmother decided that my growth was stunted, and that Hostess treats were the culprit. I was to stop eating all desserts.

Heartbroken, I snuck into a low cabinet where the baking supplies were stored. There I ate mouthfuls of chocolate chips at once. Because sweets were forbidden, they became a thrill.

I still feel a jolt when I eat dark chocolate. And I still notice the rack of packaged Hostess treats at the gas station. I know they’ll make me shorter but I find them beautiful just the same. I think of car rides with my parents and scenery spinning by.  

In my writing classes, I find that food-related prompts elicit impassioned responses. Writers not only describe vivid tastes, smells, and textures, but also memories of family gatherings. I asked my peers, Which foods bring up strong memories or emotions?

“My mom made a creamy sauce loaded with sliced eggs and veggies we’d eat over rice or toast. We grew up very poor, and this was a special Sunday meal we’d have on occasion. My mom called it ragout (pronounced as it looks). When I got older and travelled outside the country, something my mom was never able to do, I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was mispronouncing her dish all those years. It’s been over a year since her passing, and I still can’t make myself recreate her ragout.”

“I have fond memories of freezing green beans and corn, and canning peaches, tomatoes, carrot/cucumber relish. They remind me of being in the kitchen with my mom.”

Lobster was a favorite of several friends from Maine, as it reminded them of “sitting outside looking at the harbor on the Fourth of July” or having a lobster bake on the rocks with family. “It's not the same eating it anywhere else.”

“Food is definitely connected to place for me,” says one friend. She recalls annual trips to visit her Norwegian-Dutch grandparents in the Netherlands. “We ate Dutch pannekoeken (thin pancakes) and vla, a custard pudding, pourable from a carton. (I poured half chocolate and half vanilla.) I demanded we have these things every time I visited.”

“Grapenut ice cream. When I was a child, we used my grandparents’ recipe in our hand crank ice cream machine: vanilla-based ice cream with Grapenut cereal. I remember cranking the handle of the ice cream maker for what seemed like forever, but it was so worth the wait.”

“It’s not just that ice cream, for instance, is really tasty,” says Jordan Troisi, an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee, the University of the South. “It’s that someone has developed a really significant meaning behind the idea of ice cream due to their relationships with others.”

“It makes intuitive sense that positive experiences with a given food could influence our craving for it later on,” adds Alexandra Sifferlin, “but recent research also suggests something else is at play, too: Comfort foods remind us of our social ties, which means they may help us feel less lonesome when we feel isolated.”

“Food is also the link to traditions,” says one friend. “All those family recipes. They connect us to other people.”

She reminds me of my mother’s mandelbrot, or almond bread. “You would bring it to school and share it.” It was made from scratch, not overly sweet. My mom still makes this Hanukkah treat and I think of it that way still—a food to be shared.

When I ask my mother about this, she recalls a different memory, her first date with my father at a French restaurant. “I had snails and threw up. Not very romantic. Anytime I see snails on a menu—or in the garden—I think of that.”

This raises an apt point, as per Aimee Bender’s fictional lemon cake. If positive memories influence our cravings, certainly negative memories encourage our ongoing avoidance.

A friend recalls that she “despised stuffed green peppers, and was made to sit at the table long after the dinner hour because I wouldn’t eat them.” For some, the same holds true for the infamous Brussels sprout, which also came up in my survey.

“The whole machinery of nourishment is alive,” wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825. His book, The Physiology of Taste: Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, includes chapters on “Erotic Virtue of Truffles,” “Properties of Chocolate,” “Theory of Frying,” and “The Savoury Eel.” Comfort foods come in all shapes and sizes. And certain foods can “repair the losses suffered by the human body through the wear and tear of life,” he writes.

This idea calls to mind the principles of Ayurveda—the interconnectedness between the mind, the body, the senses, and the spirit. (To clarify: Sno Balls are not a food recommended by the Kripalu School of Ayurveda.)

The Kripalu Kitchen, too, sees food as a source of prana, or life force. The Kripalu Food Philosophy states, “When we bring gratitude, joy, curiosity, and love to everything we cook and eat, we are reminded that food is a powerful medicine and a source of life-giving energy. The act of eating becomes a celebration, and we are inspired to share this with others.”

Said Hippocrates, the fourth-century Greek physician, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Or, as Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

I forgive my grandmother, who only wanted to see me thrive. And I see now the multitude of reasons for avoiding packaged sweets. I could bake mandelbrot, I realize. I could pass around the slices, perhaps inviting future bouts of nostalgia.

Sample more food-related videos, recipes, and articles: The Om of Yum

Lara Tupper writes, sings, and teaches in the Berkshires. Her second novel, Off Island, inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, will be released by Encircle Publications in January 2020.

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Lara Tupper, MFA, is the author of two novels, Off Island and A Thousand and One Nights, and Amphibians, a linked short story collection forthcoming in 2021.

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