Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Happy Meals

How a spot of nostalgic comfort eating can lift everyone’s spirits.

On Friday afternoon, my (mostly American) coworkers asked me for my honest opinion about the royal wedding. Was I excited about it? What did I think about William's choice of bride? And does anyone back in the UK actually give two hoots about the royal family any more?

I explained that while I hadn't really been following the hysterical build-up (and I had never really understood the alleged sex appeal of Prince William...), Kate Middleton seemed like a jolly nice, down-to-earth lass, and - while some Brits understandably grumbled about paying taxes to support the costs of an occasion to which they were not invited, and were getting rather sick of the constant media coverage - I, for one, had no bones to pick with any event that gave my recession-struck brethren the chance to enjoy an additional national public holiday. 

(Even though I would have enjoyed the ceremony much more if it had actually been as depicted in this video ad...)

However, since attending my friends' fabulous royal wedding party on Friday night I feel I need to make an important amendment to my earlier statement: I now realize that the most important thing about the whole business was the opportunity to indulge in a glorious nationwide orgy of Party Food Nostalgia.

See All Stories In

Royal Wedding Fever

Will and Kate are getting hitched! The hullabaloo surrounding the event reveals our values, aspirations, and weakness for fairy tales.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

We all have foods that take us back to happy times and places.

Personally, if I so much as sniff a party ring, a fairy cake, or a cheesy wotsit, I am immediately at my 7th birthday party, sitting cross-legged on our dining room floor, watching wide-eyed as my dad's magician friend Graham crafted giraffes and sausage dogs from colored balloons, and made 50 pence pieces vanish in thin air, then mysteriously re-emerge.

So when I got to my slightly more grown-up party on Friday and saw not only traditional British summer foods like cucumber sandwiches and trifle, but also other party foods from my youth... like cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck into an orange so it looks like a hedgehog! And sausage rolls sliced into bitesize portions! And novelty crisps that were only allowed on special occasions! (If you have never had a cheesy Quaver, a prawn-cocktail Skip or a ready salted Hula-Hoop, you haven't really lived...) Well my reverie was so enchanting and my emotional reaction so visceral that I very nearly kissed the buffet table.

You may be thinking that I am a little crazy at this point - and you are probably partly right. But I promise that there is scientific evidence to explain my response.

For example, experiments suggest that animals quickly learn to prefer flavors and foods that are associated with release of the "pleasure" chemical dopamine in the brain - so my magic trick-invoked dopamine spurts could have exaggerated my liking for Tunnock's tea cakes. One possible reason for the discovery of the spread of obesity in social networks could be that we grow to like foods that our friends eat - so I could have my elementary school compatriots to blame for my Frazzles fetish. And, perhaps most persuasively, children grow to like foods that they experience in combination with attention from an adult - Graham the magician, you have a lot to answer for.

If it would help my case to point out that I am not alone in my particular affection for terrible British food from the 70s and 80s I would also request that you refer immediately to acclaimed food writer Nigel Slater's excellent memoir, ‘Toast'. And please think carefully back to your own childhoods - I bet your 7-year-old selves all have a favorite food that your cultivated adult selves would outwardly scorn...but secretly relish. 

Anyway my point is that there is something especially heartwarming about the occasional consumption of nutritionally-devoid foods and beverages that remind you of happy, innocent times growing up in the country of your birth. And provided that you don't develop a regular habit of comfort-eating large quantities of your peculiar childhood snacks, this obesity researcher sees absolutely no harm in it. 

The beauty of the royal wedding was that it provided British people everywhere with an excuse to indulge in a collective ecstasy of food (and more general) nostalgia - a nation of characteristically unpatriotic individuals uncharacteristically joined together in celebration of our increasingly archaic monarchy at hundreds of street parties and living room viewings, most of them doubtlessly lubricated with liberal quantities of British summer cocktails like Pimm's mixed with lemonade and fruit pieces and random little bits of cucumber.

So Will and Kate, please accept my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations on your recent nuptials. May your lives together be filled with joy, happiness, prosperity, children, scotch eggs, pickled onions, and salt and vinegar flavored Monster Munch. God save the queen!

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

more...

Subscribe to Bad Appetite

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?