Mark Swislocki


On his book Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai

Cover Interview of April 01, 2010

In a nutshell

Culinary Nostalgia focuses on Shanghai and identifies the importance of regional food culture at pivotal moments in the city’s history.  Taking foodways as a window onto urban change, the book argues that regional food culture mediated and expressed the ways in which city residents connected to the past, lived in the present, and imagined a future.  By considering the Shanghai experience as part of a wider history of food in China, the book also draws into relief one of the most remarkable, and yet rarely remarked upon, features of Chinese history during the past two centuries: the enduring appeal of traditional foodways and their regional manifestations during periods of often rapid and drastic social and cultural change.

The significance that Chinese have attached to foodways has of course changed many times, and in many important ways.  But regional foodways remain a salient component of cultural identity in China—even in a place as “modern” and cosmopolitan as Shanghai—despite the nationalization of so many other arenas of “Chinese” culture.  My book seeks to explain this, by examining the tenacity of regional taste preferences and the almost limitless flexibility that food provides as a vehicle for constructing a sense of home and imagining an ideal society. 

Since so much of this constructing and imagining turns out to have been nostalgic, my book is also an inquiry into the history of nostalgia, and of culinary nostalgia in particular.  This is a concept that I define broadly as the recollection or purposive evocation of another time and place through food.  The broadness of the definition is intentional.  I propose that nostalgia not be framed in negative terms, as is most commonly done, for example, as a pathology, or a form of delusion or obfuscation.  Instead, the book asks that nostalgia be considered a category for critical reflection upon a changing world.  This alternative approach to nostalgia more accurately reflects the historical record of Shanghai, at least in terms of how culinary nostalgia operated. 

In more general terms, Culinary Nostalgia is quite simply a book about the joys and delights of eating, remembering, talking about, and writing about favorite hometown foods.  It is, therefore, a book about something that might be thought of as a universal human theme, but which in China manifests itself with a remarkable intensity, and which became, in addition, a matter of particular urgency.