Time travel happens in the most peculiar places. Last week when a friend posted a picture and simple question on Facebook, “Anyone eat these?” I tumbled back in time.
What was this transporter? Not a DeLorean, TARDIS or Way Back Machine … it was peanuts. Circus peanuts. The marshmallow-ish, orange, banana flavored candy that, if not for the shape and stylized peanut shell embossing, bears little resemblance to a peanut.
My mom was strict when it came to junk food: we got raisins when we asked for something sweet. Candy or cookies were hard to find in our house, but not at Grandpa’s! He always had a bag of circus peanuts in his breadbox. Seeing them now brings me back to his pantry.
Now that I’m the raisin pusher I try to fill our larder with (semi) healthy fare, but our local hardware store has a display of old-fashioned candy by the register. When I’m there with a kid I’ll buy a small bag of circus peanuts (because buying food in a hardware store is charming) and we’ll eat them on the way home. The kids are trapped in the car, it’s a short ride and I just bought them candy, so they listen to stories about my grandfather or about how mean my mom was for thinking potato sticks were interchangeable with potato chips. They chew circus peanuts and politely fake shock when I tell them that I was 13 before I had a Twinkie.
The circus peanut falls into a sub-set of nostalgia foods. Mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, tater-tot casserole, chicken noodle soup … none of these nostalgia foods are hard sells to others. I am fully aware that the lowly, overly-sweet circus peanut solicits a, “No, thank you” or “ick” from a lot of people, but to me they taste like a happy memory.
My first stop on a short quest to learn more about people I love was my twin brother. “Do you have a nostalgia food that makes other people turn up their noses but you still eat because you associate it with a good memory?”
“Yup!” he said very quickly. “Pink wafer cookies remind me of the summer camp we went to.”
I wasn’t sure who this “we” was and, for not the first time in our life, I was convinced that we had separate childhoods.
“We went to summer camp?” Talking in sibling code he eventually tripped the camp memory but my food related remembrance was of paper straws in milk cartons. You know the ones that you had to drink the milk really fast before the straw got all stuck together and worthless?
Of course he had no memory of the straws.
I went to my best friend since kindergarten. We had been inseparable for many years, maybe we shared a questionably gross nostalgia food.
Nope. Plum Dumplings, a dish I have never had — a situation that she promised to correct.
When I asked other friends I learned something very valuable about them: My people are eating some weird stuff in the name of memories.
Saltines and ketchup.
Jello, cottage cheese, Cool Whip and fruit.
Sardines in mustard, straight from the can.
I learned about a Czech dish called Svickova which is marinated beef roasted and served with a cream sauce and dumplings; I discovered whose grandmother taught them to mix cocktails when they were 5.
The greatest unexpected reward for my nostalgic food quest? Each person not only quickly had an answer, but simply talking about it let loose the memories behind it.
And I had the fun of time traveling with them.
Susan Vollenweider lives in Smithville. For more of her writing, go to thehistorychicks.com.