The Taste of Nostalgia

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia for a few months. (Nostalgiazing over nostalgia?) As a historian, my present—and my future, as far as I can see it—is infused with the past. I don’t have a longing for the false past of mythical “good old days;” I’ve read enough to know that despite my longing for a climate-controlled time machine equipped with full amenities, such as running water, a toilet, hot, brewed coffee, and a supply of good chocolate, I do not want to live in the past–even my own past. I have no desire to relive my youth, although I wouldn’t mind having the energy I had as a teen, and I could do without the vague pains of middle age.

Still . . .nostalgia is pleasant. In fact, I’ve discovered it can be good for you. An article in July in the New York Times discussed the study of nostalgia and its effect on people. Nostalgia comes from Greek words meaning to return home and the pain that comes with it. The term was coined by a 17th century Swiss physician who believed it was a serious mental affliction. Now, researchers—and it is something that is actually being studied—believe nostalgia can be useful. Moreover, nostalgia can be found among people all over the world, from all different cultures and backgrounds, and ages. Even children can feel nostalgic.

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” says Dr. Routledge, a psychologist at North Dakota State University, “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.” According to the article, nostalgia can make people feel less anxious, and it can even make us feel warmer in a cold room.

In June, when my husband and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary, I went through some of our wedding photos and thought about people who were no longer with us. At the same time, we were making plans to bring my wedding gown to our older daughter, who plans to wear it when she gets married next year. Past and future merged in a kaleidoscope of images in my brain—memories of our wedding and thoughts of a wedding yet to come, a wedding gown connecting the two.

So. . .I was nostalgic, and then I started thinking about nostalgia. Naturally, I thought of food. . .because, well, if you’ve read my blog before you know I always think of food. I wake up planning dinners. That’s true—ask my family.

Anyway, I started wondering what nostalgia would taste like. Not simply comfort food. My ultimate nostalgia meal would probably be Thanksgiving—simply because the scent of the onions, turkey, cinnamon, and everything cooking melds together and elicits from me such a strong sense of home, family, and the past– that even thinking about it now makes me feel warm, cozy, and happy.

But what if I had to narrow it down to one item? So I started thinking sweet, bittersweet, cakey—gotta have those carbs—and I came up with this: A sour cream coffee cake with cinnamon, bittersweet chocolate, and a light glaze. The addition of the chocolate doesn’t make it really taste chocolatey, but it adds a depth to the flavor. It’s not too sweet. It’s comforting, and just right. It smelled good, too, while baking.

I don’t know that this cake is actually the taste of nostalgia, but it’s a good cake. To be perfectly honest, the bottom of the cake stuck to the pan, so the cake was kind of lopsided and crumbled. It was delicious though. Still, isn’t that like life? Sometimes you get stuck, sometimes things don’t work out, but then you look back and remember those sweet, spicy, and bittersweet moments? Perhaps some day, I’ll remember making this cake, and I’ll feel nostalgic.


A little misshapen, but still delicious

A little misshapen, but still delicious


Nostalgia Coffee Cake
(adapted from “Coffee Cake Exceptionale” in Coralie Castle and Jacqueline Killeen, Country Inns Cookery.)

¾ cup butter
1 ½ cups graulate sugar
3 eggs
½ tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ cups sour cream

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ cups finely chopped walnuts
½ tablespoon cinnamon
finely ground bittersweet chocolate ( I used 2 Ghiradelli squares)

I added a glaze of confectioners sugar, vanilla, and milk

Grease and flour tube pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix butter and sugar until light. One at a time, beat in eggs, then vanilla. Combine dry ingredients, and stir in alternately with sour cream.

Combing filling ingredients. Ladle half of the batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle evenly with filling and spread remaining batter over it. Bake 50 minutes, or until cake pulls slightly away from the sides of the pan and tester comes out clean. Cool at least a bit before adding glaze, if you can resist that long.