Nostalgia makes is a craving for the past. It is an emotional longing for the euphoria of a previous time or place, whether it is for a memory or experience, for family and friends, or for a “simpler” time in one’s life. However, the term nostalgia differs remarkably from its actual meaning. Nostalgia is an interaction between emotion and cognition. It is an experience that can affect one’s physical being, state of mind, sentiments, perceptions, and memories.
From this point of view, nostalgia is an escape from the present due to being unsatisfied with it. In the essay, “Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks”, Helen Rosner argues that Olive Garden holds memories and sentimental value because of its “exquisite mediocrity” and its ability to generate a feeling of familiarity and comfort. In Chuck Klosterman’s essay, “Nostalgia On Repeat,” he highlights that accidental repetition is just “nostalgia without memory” and has nothing to do with what is happening alongside one’s life at the time. When analyzing both texts closely, it is apparent that Rosner’s nostalgia is both “real” and a case of accidental repetition because of the “emotional” and “mechanical” experiences she has had as a little girl and as a grown woman.
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To Klosterman, “real” nostalgia is nothing but looking and appreciating something that actively reminds someone of their past, something that triggers an emotional reaction that makes a person recall all the feelings they had in that moment. Klosterman talks about listening to a song from many years ago in his text and claims that seeing or listening to a song from the past does not count as real nostalgia. He writes, “It’s not just that we like the feeling that comes along with the song. We like the song itself. The song itself sounds good, even if we don’t spend a second thinking about our personal relationship to when we originally heard it,” (Klosterman 3).
This instance further proves what Klosterman’s actual definition for nostalgia is. When seeing or hearing something that one liked in the past, the automatic response would be to consider it as nostalgia, simply because of the memories associated with that certain activity. However, Klosterman clarifies that although something is from one’s past, it does not always classify as nostalgia. He suggests that if the song was liked in the past, it is most likely that the song will be liked in the present. This is when the accidental repetition concept becomes intertwined with “real” nostalgia. Listening to a song endlessly allows one to appreciate and treasure it by adding significance to it. The “significance” is what people misread as nostalgia.
Klosterman further analyzes the concept of “real” nostalgia and claims that it is a “lazy way of critiquing art” because it frequently results in people creating an amplified importance for particular forms of art that have no significant meaning. “The central reason most smart people disparage nostalgia is obvious: It’s an uncritical form of artistic appreciation,” (Klosterman 2). When people “encounter” nostalgia, they do not appreciate the true value of what is being experienced.
Each individual has different memories associated with a particular event or place, some may be positive and others may be negative, but the “real” nostalgia that some may feel over their favorite song or movie is not particularly nostalgia. It is more of a realization that they that they just genuinely enjoy that certain item. Holding sentimental values and appreciating something for the quality of art is the contradiction that Klosterman emphasizes when highlighting the dissimilarity between accidental repetition and “real” nostalgia.
With reference to Klosterman’s piece, Rosner argues that each Olive Garden is built to look the same as all other locations to entice individuals and their families to frequently visit the restaurant wherever they are. The “vague familiarity” brings to mind some half-lost memory of old-world simplicity and dexterity. Rosner writes, “Its product is nominally pasta and wine, but what Olive Garden is actually selling is Olive Garden, a room of comfort and familiarity, a place to return over and over,” (4).
These repeated visits to Olive Garden are not memories per se, but a place one has gotten used to. The “symmetrical architecture” and “hazy dimness” of each restaurant makes each experience merge into one, this manipulates the minds of the people into thinking each visit is a valuable memory. The diluted “memory” of “going to Olive Garden” is what people remember the most—not a specific meal, unless it was outright terrible or absolutely delicious. It is also what they crave. If all Olive Garden restaurants are the same visually-speaking, then the consumers of that market have the convenience of being able to enjoy their favorite “Italian” meal wherever they can find a location. This is not a unique experience that is a coveted memory of the past, but a repeated satisfaction of a craving.
In all of the attempts that Olive Garden has made to refresh their image, they all always fail miserably because all people want is the same meal and experience. The ability to go into a restaurant and know exactly what to get without looking at the menu is what people want the most. Rosner writes, “All the stunts and menu revamps and dining room redesigns are met with indifference at best… Inevitably Darden retreats and regroups, falling back on the only thing that ever reliably gets people in the door…” (10). The staples of their menu, pasta, soup, breadsticks, entice people to repeatedly come back and contribute to their business. The “accidental repetition” that the consumers of Olive Garden face is one-sided. From Olive Garden’s perspective, they decide to intentionally keep their menu constant in a process of seemingly “purposeful” repetition. With this business strategy, Olive Garden will have business forever, or at least so long as people come to their restaurants to eat most things but olives.
Rosner’s nostalgia is considered real nostalgia because of countless memories she has tied to certain dishes and the overall atmosphere of the restaurant. The magic of the Olive Garden experience is nailed in the first few moments of the dining experience, during which one can still reside in the suppressed anticipation of what is to come. To her, the restaurant is a place of warmth and solace, despite their mediocre food and fake Italian authenticity.
“I don’t walk around feeling like I’m old, but when I ordered the fettuccine alfredo, maybe I gave away a hint, and my friend asked how long it had been since I last had it. I said the words ‘20 years’ out loud, and almost choked on how far away the present turns out to be the past,” (Rosner 6). The fettuccine alfredo to Rosner is a symbol of her childhood and the very reason she pays frequent visits to the restaurant. Without the alfredo dish, the connection to Olive Garden would not be as important to her because those “flashes of greatness” is what makes the restaurant “uncannily good at being itself”.
In the end, Rosner’s nostalgia is both a case of accidental repetition and “real nostalgia” because of her emotional and “mechanical” experiences. Olive Garden is a “machine of memory” that generates moments of reminiscence and connectivity. Although Olive Garden holds some memories of hers, it is not to be mistaken by a false sense of nostalgia that comes with revisiting the same atmosphere of the restaurant itself.