Sunday, September 7, 2008

Getting All Choked Up on Old Food

Over the years I've found that there are certain advantages to being part of the so-called "baby-boomer" generation. There are so many of us that we have a purchasing power probably no other demographic group can match. Consequently, businesses tend to cater to us, and certainly advertisers target us. As we go through the years most of the national trends seem to follow our station in life, or at least what somebody thinks our station in life should be.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the food industry. I don't think it's just my imagination, for example, that in the late 1960s and early 1970s when we were students there were a lot of restaurants around that sported rustic wood paneling and sitar music. They all had mellow "waitpeople" that plied us with mango juice and "Ethereal Planet Burgers." Sprouts were everywhere.

In the 1980s our generation turned materialistic with a vengeance, and the food industry was there to capitalize on it. The "Whole Life Café" was suddenly renamed the "Exchange Grill," and it began catering to the power lunch set. The ferns were taken out, and the paneling was changed from old barn siding to polished mahogany. Even Jeff, the catatonic waiter who had been there ever since that day he wandered in on his way back from Woodstock, had changed. He was now referred to as "Geoffrey," and he wore a tux and worked at being rude.

Supermarkets took advantage of the materialism of the 1980s as well. They made a killing by offering expensive vegetables that no one ever heard of, and by selling gourmet frozen dinners to busy working people for twelve dollars apiece.

Now that the 1990s are upon us, the food industry has once again changed the way it relates to the baby-boom generation. Someone has gotten the idea that now that we're getting a little long in the tooth, we must all be responsible family people. That means we have to make decisions about what we feed our children and, even more important, it means we are starting to get nostalgic about what we ate as a kid.

The food industry seems to have created a clever and highly profitable marketing plan to take advantage of these assumptions they have made about us. I say highly profitable because, by pushing nostalgia on us, they can sell all those old products they've been making for forty years. The hope, of course, is that not only will we try these things again for "nostalgic" reasons, but we'll feed them to our kids as well.

All of this has made watching television almost unbearable (all right, even more unbearable.) Over the past few months I've heard corny jingles and seen cartoon mascots that I thought had mercifully died in the fifties. Even lowly products like corn flakes are getting national airtime at two hundred thousand dollars a minute.

By far the worst of all these nostalgia ads is one that shows a decidedly yuppie-looking fellow patiently teaching his too-cute-to-be-believed son the proper method of eating an Oreo cookie. This is no subtle manipulation of the buyer at home. This is shameless sentimentality, and I guess I resent the fact that it is aimed at my generation.

I, for one, am not going to get caught up in this food nostalgia thing. Mostly, that's because when I look back on the things I ate twenty or thirty years ago I have only to borrow a phrase from the generation after mine: gag me with a spoon! I remember that as a kid (in those dark pre-vegetarian days) my favorite dinner was a twenty-five cent box of macaroni and cheese mix with a couple of hot dogs sliced up in it. I'd wash that down with about a quart of cheap, store brand ice cream. This is something to be nostalgic about?

Things didn't improve very quickly, either. As a student living in poverty I was fond of microwaved American cheese sandwiches (at least they were fast) and salads made of nothing but iceberg lettuce. These are days to be remembered, but certainly not days to be relived.

Now I don't want to sound snobby about all of this, but vegetarians are by definition choosier than the general public about what they put in their bodies. We, more than most people, feel that our diet has become a little more sophisticated, a little healthier, over the years. That being the case, we're not likely to take a step backwards twenty or thirty years for any reason, much less at the urgings of some advertiser trying to make a buck off food nostalgia.

So don't I ever get nostalgic about food? Well, yes. But only food from my post-vegetarian era. On occasion I remember how nice the Whole Life Cafe used to be. We would sit there amongst the knotty pine and play with the honey container on the table while we waited for our dinner. And you know, when he wasn't stoned, old Jeff could be a pretty darned good waiter, too. Sometimes, when I ordered the Ethereal Planet Burger, he'd give me extra sprouts.

Mark's All-Star List of Foods Consumed During the (Pre-Vegetarian) 1960s

  • Kool Aid (I didn't even like it very much as a kid)
  • Cool Whip (At least they spelled it right)
    • My Grandmother's Buttermilk Pancakes (These I could get nostalgic about—I'm waiting for the ads)
    • Herring (Really, no kidding!)
    • Hostess Snack Pies (They were always filled with two cherries and lots of gloppy syrup)
    • Dietetic Soft Drinks with Cyclamates (At least this is one thing we won't be seeing nostalgia ads for)

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