Lifestyle Journalist

M. Astella Saw writes about travel, food, retail, design and trends in the lifestyle sectors. Contact me at m.astella.saw (at) gmail.com

Nostalgic Nosh

While Marcel Proust had his memory-inducing madeleine, restaurants and food retailers are now dedicated to one perfect serving of delicious nostalgia. Move over, cupcake – there’s a new comfort food in town.

In the early 2000s, cupcakes responded to the desires of consumers to indulge in a few bites of sugar-frosted, retro delight. In the wake of the cupcake revolution – whose headquarters include New York’s now-famous Magnolia Bakery, Stockholm’s Cupcake STHLM and Singapore’s Toast – we are seeing a real hunger for other nostalgic treats and traditional comfort foods, such as new gourmet versions of pot pies, whoopie pies and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Simple foods for trying times
‘For a lot of people, a return to something comfortable, something reliable and something nostalgic – reminding them of simpler, easier times – was a nice change from the economic collapse going on around them,’ says Nate Pollak, co-owner of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco. ‘Certain fads, foods and diet trends may come and go, but cupcakes and grilled cheese will always be a staple.’

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen and New York’s Melt Shop are just two restaurants serving up modern versions of that classic midnight snack, the grilled cheese sandwich. Meanwhile, Bread.Butter.Cheese. was a popular guerrilla grilled-cheese delivery service running in lower Manhattan late last year.

Teaching an old dog new tastes
But smart purveyors understand that Nostalgic Nosh is not just about offering a slice of days gone by. The trend pays equal attention to exploring and redefining a country’s food heritage. As such, we note the introduction of more sophisticated flavours and ingredients aimed at the tastebuds of a generation of savvy eaters.

‘Restaurants and food retailers are redefining [the classics] as something cultural, artisanal and artistic,’ Pollak says.

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen’s varieties include Tillamook cheddar on artisan sourdough, and a mushroom gruyère on homemade gluten-free bread. In Los Angeles, Simplethings Sandwich & Pie Shop offers classic cherry pie alongside a salted caramel pie that speaks to more current tastes. True to current tastes as well, ingredients are all locally sourced or made on site.

In London, Claire Ptak, founder of cupcake company Violet, folds freshly brewed espresso, homemade flower cocktails and, when in season, Italian Fragolino grapes into the many icings that top her petite sponge cakes. Columbus, Indiana, artisanal marshmallow maker 240sweet offers more than 70 gourmet marshmallow flavours, such as lychee and pomegranate rose. And at The Good Batch, a popular stroopwafel (Dutch syrup waffle) stand at the Brooklyn Flea market, founder Anna Gordon’s artisanal ice cream sandwiches include the Peanut Butter Puck – Adirondack vanilla ice cream and homemade sea-salt-and-honey peanut butter on a cocoa waffle cookie. As for the whoopie pie – traditionally two small mounds of chocolate cake sandwiching a layer of cream or frosting – new-era flavours landing on baking trays such as Violet’s include rhubarb and custard, matcha, pumpkin, and even a savoury red pepper and goat’s cheese.

Selling stories
Ultimately, while sophisticated flavours tickle the tastebuds of today’s diners, consumers of Nostalgic Nosh are just as hungry for another factor: story. In other words, the well-heeled customers buying whoopie pies at Paris’s Grande Épicerie, a gourmet supermarket, are just as interested in the delicate hazelnut feuilletine or raspberry cream flavours as they are in the fact that the sweet treat had its humble beginnings among the Amish community in New England, USA.

That’s the draw of Nostalgic Nosh – it’s a food that comes with the story mixed in. Successful food retailers will learn to balance the tastes of today with the flavour of the past.

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15 July 2011