I follow a lot of Youtubers; have for years. It can be a shock to some that I am quite well-versed in pop culture and celebrity news. Being a social media manager means keeping up with what’s going on in the world and that means being able to speak on and know a lot about what’s happening in the world at all times from memes to who is dating who. The Youtubers part may be less of a shock. From Jenna Marbles (please, come back to us); I’ve followed the journeys of many of these online celebrities and enjoyed their content and their personalities. John Green helped me come to terms with having OCD, Crash Course taught me new things, Mike Rugnetta helped me see the world in different ways, Hannah Hart taught me to check my cheese for poison.
That’s to say, when Youtube Rewinds are released at the end of the year as a bit of a jaunt through the year’s events I look forward to them. I love seeing all the trends, the dancing, the mix of pop music and all the celebrities I’ve spent so much time with and I get a kick out of recognizing names and faces.
I started really taking notice of the Youtube Rewinds in 2016 when we had one of the best rewinds ever made since they began nearly two decades ago. It was the perfect blend of the memes, humor and tone of 2016 as we mostly ignored the election and thought on all the neat things that happened before the election and our lives and country would be changed forever. In 2016 while canceling and #MeToo was a thing, most were firmly in the camp of either denial when celebrities you cared about or to just chalk it up to a messy he said/she said. Which is why people like PewdiePie who is a literal racist being in the video isn’t so strange: he was still the biggest name on the platform and even though we had heard him be awful and racist before 2016, we accepted me; I accepted it.
Since then, there’s only been two more rewinds including 2017 which has a montage of all the bad things that happened that year but the world coming together (and it does make me cry) and 2018 which is where things had fallen off the rails.We now knew and could not ignore the problematic elements in the Youtube community from racist stars to ignoring and suppressing LGBT voices and yet the 2018 Rewind displayed not only queer creators and many of the problematic creators that we by the time the rewind aired knew were problematic. It was almost like the rewind was meant to have us ignore all of this for a candy-colored view of the world. 2018 also had its fair share of issues mostly relating to a racist president that was bent on ruining the world but Youtube Rewind was determined to be upbeat to the point of being tone deaf. There’s something to be said about trying to choose positivity in the light of what was an objectively bad year but seeing a bunch of millionaire celebrities wax philosophic about equality and things being better and that Logan Paul wasn’t a terrible person. Even in 2017 it was starting to feel a little tired when we had people who were objectively better off than the millions watching the Youtube Rewind were continuing to insist that we just keep our heads up and dance because things are okay even when they aren’t.
But now as I find myself sequestered inside, I found the older Rewinds so comforting or at least I want to. The 2015 Rewind that focuses on back then what was a decade of Youtube and meme culture nearly brought tears to my eyes as I saw viral videos and memes that were so much part of my teenage zeitgeist that they have imprinted on my heart. The 2016 Rewind may still be one of my favorites even if it does start to feel incomplete in comparison to what else was happening that year: 2016 was not just Pokemon Go and Justin Bieber music but it is nice to think of it that way. Even more so, it’s strange going back and looking at a year like 2015 or even 2013 which feels like it was approximately 1000 years ago. It’s almost strange now to see the tone of the world be so positive or different in comparison to how I feel now in 2021; a strange mix of desperate optimism atop of intense ennui, malaise and fatigue. At the same time, some of the earlier rewinds are nearly impossible to watch as they feature memes or songs that have been played to death or have been banished from the current social and digital lexicon. No one does the Harlem Shake anymore and if one more damn person asks “What does the Fox say?” I will fling myself into traffic. But to go back and think about a time where the world cared slime
Nostalgia is a strange thing: it does in fact distort the past into a comfortable and often linear narrative. It’s much easier to think of the past as a series of one-off events rather than think of the building tension and hostility that had been brewing under the surface or the terrible acts that happened during those years while others got the luxury to just play games and listen to popular music and revel in meme culture. It’s easier to ignore the complexities of men and the horrible things they do while the camera is running or when the camera isn’t running. It’s much easier to ignore the systemic issues that have plagued creators of color both online and in the real world to make them cheapened tokens of diversity amongst a sea of white creators. It’s much easier not to think about the racist demagogue whose reign of terror during those years would change the lives of millions while simply indulging in the hedonistic ambrosia of slick remixes and references to a thing you may or may not have liked. But for a piece of corporate-driven capitalistic nostalgia, it has been a strange sort of balm in these trying times to cast my mind back to a time that at least on the surface felt simpler.
So I have a birthday coming up and with that, my over two decade career in anime continues on. With that being said, I found anime and manga during a very formative part of my life and thus so many of the series I hold near and dear to me helped form my personality, my ethics, my values and forever shaped how I judge series to this very day. With nostalgia in mind, let’s go over a few of the series that made me, well, me.
Yes, I have found a way to talk about this anime in nearly every post I have written about the subject but I think that should tell you all just how near and dear to my heart this series is. The long and short of it is that Edward and Alphonse Elric have done a bad thing and the rest of the series is a redemption tour to fix the bad thing. Along the way there’s military intrigue, cool automail stuff and really really fantastic philosophical and ethical questions. I cannot stress to you enough how strongly I bonded with Edward as a teen. I was 15 when I started FMA, I was the same age as Edward when he began the series. I had also similarly lost a parent that meant the world to me and I also was trying to find a way to empirically rationalize my grief, guilt and loss. The soundtrack is fantastic, the dub (aside from one horrible human being that I want to ignore) is fantastic, the ending is great (because let’s not talk about Brotherhood or the movie) and no character is wasted. I went on a journey of maturity with Ed and Alphonse. I recited the mini skirt speech to my friends in high school, the names we gave each other were all from the series. Hell, in my former best friend’s phone I was Izumi for years in homage to Ed and Al’s teacher. To many I was Roy Mustang and I still am so proud of my pocket watch. Fullmetal Alchemist gave me something that I was missing in the shojo series I was meant to relate to and that was a protagonist with a struggle similar to mine. I didn’t have a traditional loving family and no problems at a teen so I couldn’t relate to the average shoujo protagonist: Edward gave me someone who in so many ways was actually like me and watching him struggle, fumble, grow, change and be better gave me the strength I needed to grow and change myself. We all carry the scars of our past, some are literal and others are more metaphorical but we all have two strong legs so we just need to get up and keep going forward.
You know, you’d think my family would have noticed that all of my tastes in anime were really dark and heavy. Cowboy Bebop is as close to perfect as I think an anime can get. But immediately there was something about this jazzy, usually mellow serious with bursts of bright action and violence that had me hooked from a very early age. I could go on about Bebop but that seems a little unfair to the other series on this list: I mean it’s about as close to perfect as I think anime can get from the soundtrack to the animation
There is no single anime that has shaped the fan I am to this day like InuYasha. My love of villains, my tastes in anime music, my admiration of side characters that push through pain and still smile. InuYasha set the bar for me, got me to write fanfic, got me to think about anime critically, got me to start studying the language and learn about the culture and about suffixes and and the history of the land. The image of Japan that is still set in my mind was framed and began with InuYasha.
You know, I may not talk about it a lot considering how badly the series wrapped up but good heavens this series meant so much to me while in high school. I was at a formative age and the large cast and ability to slot yourself into different affiliations and villages always as something special to me. To this day, I am proud of my village designation and whether or not I am Akatsuki. The answer to which is I usually claim Hidden Mist Village, Hidden Waterfall Village, Hidden Rain Village or Sand Village because why the hell not or Akatsuki Leaf or Sand.
Ouran High School Host Club
Okay, I don’t like shojo. I still don’t like shojo but wow, if you have noticed a type of character I like to cosplay, it was cemented that I liked being the charming host type. Now, in hindsight, this series is hella problematic and I really wish they had kept Haruhi as a boy but being able to have my friends and I slot into our respective roles gave us a language all of our. In my high school anime club, rank mattered and me being a Tamaki and my VP being Kyoya told new members and current members a lot about our personalities, roles, duties and dynamic: without even speaking to us the moment you heard us refer to each other as Mommy and Daddy you knew exactly what kind of club we ran.
Yes, yes, I’m talking about gay stuff again. But as I’ve said before, I helped figure out so much about myself and my identity by finding the language and world of Gravitation. To this day, Yuki Eiri informs so much of how I live my life and choose to interact with others (for better or worse). I was able to craft an entire other being within myself based on one character and find a truer version of me than I had previously known: if that isn’t influential, I’m not sure what else is.
I could easily go on (maybe a Part 2?) about more series that formed me. The more I looked at this list, the more series came to mind but for the sake of brevity and sanity, I wanted to get this out the door and to you, my readers.
Thanks for going down this nostalgic jaunt with me.
There’s a scene in Boruto (a sequel to Naruto and Naruto Shippuden that no one asked for or wanted) where Sasuke and Naruto fight a cheap Orochimaru knock-off and it’s a one that has been on my mind for a while now because of how sneaky it is. Here’s a why the fight is so insidious:
- It’s a perfectly good shonen fight. Many attack. Much punching. So many jutsus.
- And two that if you have watched Naruto or Naruto: Shippuden it’s a masterful fight. It’s watching two characters that we have grown up with (hell, I’m the same age as Naruto now, I think) using the skills they learned as kids and teens to defeat a foe. It’s amazing to see their training pay off by becoming efficient masters of moves they used to take on early foes of the series. It’s a wonderful fight if you have that decades long history with the show.
And here’s where I’m going to play a little Nando v. Movies for a moment. That fight shouldn’t have been Naruto and Sasuke’s fight: it should have been Boruto and Sarada’s. For more background on Boruto, this show centers around the children of the main cast. Boruto is one of Naruto’s annoying children with Hinata and Sarada is Sasuke and Sakura’s annoying daughter. And the show is…fine? It’s fine. It’s a weak show and I’ve never seen a series so afraid of its protagonist. We have spent time Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura…over 10 years, in fact. And the companies behind Boruto are very anxious this show cannot and will not live up to the long shadow cast by its predecessor. Boruto as a character also lives in the shadow of his father, Naruto which is metacriticism nearly beaten into the viewer. The show has lots of potential but it’s too soon and it isn’t Naruto. But one change with this fight that happens, honestly, 60 damn episodes in the damn series about the actual main cast, not the older generation, there is a lot of potential for positive change. Back to the Nando v. Movies comparison.
If you made this fight with the mastery of old techniques about Boruto having to learn the moves that lead up to his father being Hokage then that gives Boruto an arc and gives him something else to connect to his father on. If you make this about Sarada and Boruto then it becomes about them becoming the new Sasuke and Naruto. That lets you pay homage to the past while honoring the present rather than reminding me that I am old and that I miss Naruto.
After all that preamble I want to talk about nostalgia.
The whole fight with Sasuke and Naruto didn’t make me happy about Boruto. It made me want to watch Naruto. That’s the upside down of nostalgia. I had the exact same feeling about Pokemon: Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire. Aside from the Delta Episode, that game didn’t make me fall in love with it, it made me want to go back and play Pokemon Ruby. And considering that the current media landscape is nothing but remakes, reboots and more, I find increasingly that I am not interested in in the remake, it just makes me want to go back to the original. Knowing that we’re going to have Marvel movies from now until the heat death of the universe doesn’t make me want to see all of them (I’ll see most of them) it just makes me want to go back to the source material.
Which brings us to homage, intertextuality and shameless cash grabs.
There’s such a fine line between rip-offs and homage that honestly, that could be its own blog. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a shot-for-shot genderbent redo of Star Wars: A New Hope but some praise the film for it while others saw it as pandering attempt at rebooting a legacy franchise. It’s what lead to all the conflama with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, that movie now is too different from the original but it’s only because we’ve gotten very used to being spoon-fed nostalgia. We can also see this in all the dumb Disney live-action reboots. They so badly want us to think of the innocence we had as a childhood that they just keep repackaging the stories we grew up with but worse. Beauty and the Beast (2017) so badly wants to remind you of the iconic movie from the 90s but it ignores all the things that made the first movie so great and I left the movie not loving or appreciating the homage, it just made me want to watch the 90s version of the movie. There are very few live-action remakes or just remakes in general that do much to improve the original. The nostalgia these movies want to milk is hollow and just makes me miss the 90s.
Which brings us back to intertextuality. Hey, do you remember that thing? Sure you do. You gotta remember that thing. Take heart in knowing the simply fact of whatever thing you insert into that line will be bill in a movie, game, comic or more. We saw it in Pokemon: Sun/Moon. We see it in Stranger Things and we see it in the new remake of It. What makes intertextuality different than homage is that rather than it taking inspiration from a thing it’s just copying or inserting something into a newer property so that you feel connected to that new thing. And the problem is that leaning into the older and more beloved aspects of a franchise can backfire spectacularly. Again back to Boruto, cramming the older characters in is just there to keep our attention and it actively ruins the story. We aren’t given time to spend with the kids because we have to keep looking at the adults. As much as I dislike Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, we at least don’t spend a lot of time with useless adult Harry Potter and useless adult Draco Malfoy: we spend time with their sons and their friends and it’s wonderful despite the plot of that play being a red hot garbage fire.
This is not the same as the shameless cash grab though some are unique examples of all three. Newer reboots of shows like ThunderCats (2018) and Teen Titans GO! certainly are repackaged for a younger audience and are both from older and more beloved properties but neither seem to want to even touch the shadow of their former cash grab shows. Teen Titans GO! evenly actively reminds you of the fact that this show is far from the glory days of its prior better television show. But while I’m not really angry at these shows (I know they aren’t for me because I am old) again, it doesn’t make me feel anything for them outside of my desire to just go back and watch their originals.
That’s the problem with nostalgia. While sure, some are inspired by remakes and rehashes, so many more are just tired. I’m old now, it’s why I have such a hard time with newer anime. I started watching My Hero Academia and it’s so aggressively like Naruto that I’m actively taken out of the show (and while yes, the show does plenty of things I can praise later, it isn’t enough to distract from all the tropes and beats it has taken from other popular shonen series). Why would I want to watch discount Fullmetal Alchemist? I can just watch Fullmetal Alchemist.
If you’re pro-nostalgia, let me know! I’m curious if I’m just an old fart now and just refuse to be hip with the young kids.
I was born in the glorious 90s. And because of that, I am nostalgic for the late 90s and the early to mid 2000s. And while I’ve talked before about how important being a 90s kid is to me, I wanted to talk about the generational divide and why it’s strange being stuck in a nostalgia-loop.
From television, to movies to music: it seems like we’ve been stuck in a perpetual loop that glorifies the 1980s and 1990s. And that makes sense: many of the media creatives that are major producers now were born in the 1980s: it would make sense for them to want to look back to a simpler time that meant a lot to them.
There’s this thing called a nostalgia cycle: it’s a funny sort of thing. It essentially states that the media that is popular reflects an era that’s either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from the current year. Think of the 1990s being nostalgic for the 50s and 60s. And I’m far from the first essayist to comment on this nostalgia cycle but it’s worth mentioning because it does seem to be never-ending. But there’s one aspect of it that I think we’re missing when we talk about weaponized nostalgia: it’s been surprisingly forgetful of the past while claiming to be doing something new.
I’m writing this right before Black Panther hits theaters here in the U.S. and for many this is the first black-led superhero movie. [update: I did see Black Panther and the movie is out and successful!] To which, many and all comic book fans roll their eyes. Blade is hilariously underrated and fantastic and was a black-led superhero movie in the 1990s. Not to say that I am not excited about Black Panther nor do I hope to quell any of the hype any folks may have for this film: it is a big deal but it isn’t the first anything right now.
Similarly, almost all the music that is popular nowadays seems to sound just like music did when I was growing up. Lots of house beats, tons of 80s synth influence and way too many songs that never end and just repeat lyrics. Not to mention that fact that we have yet to seem to get rid of the girl/boy band.
I think I’m most struck by this because I have a younger cousin who stands in as the avatar straw-man of all the reasons 90s kids are at odds with Gen Z and why Baby Boomers must hate us damn millennials. When I was home for Christmas, I got to sit and watch the yearly ritual of him receiving hundreds of dollars in gifts because he is an only child like I am and thus is spoiled rotten as I was. This year, he received an outfit that I’m almost certain my elementary school classmates wore from the sunglasses to the dark khaki joggers and a very retro looking smartwatch: hell, I think it still had a calculator on it. And in a brief moment of time that was only the two of us: I could hear him reciting the lyrics to Good Morning, a song from Kanye West that I love and is now nearly 10 years old. Everything from the yuppie fashion to the questionable music choice made me think of myself when I was his age now almost 15 years ago.
I’m also very torn by how sanitized the narratives are for this new wave of nostalgia. Sure, the 90s and the 2000s were great but they weren’t perfect. We had racism, school shootings, terrorism, inequality and all the things we still have just with more Spice Girls and legitimate battles over which boy band was better. But if you look at Stranger Things, a love letter to the 1980s, you’d think the 80s was a magical time where nothing bad happened and racism wasn’t a thing and political correctness existed. But we’ve been bad about that for some time. I’m reminded of the Johnny Rocket’s franchise, which begs you to think of the 1950s as a time for sock hops and milkshakes and not Civil Rights battles and police brutality.
It’s especially troubling considering that we’ve taken nostalgia to it’s only logical place which is to make huge profits off it. F.Y.E. just had a huge promotion selling Reptar Bars, a part of my childhood from Rugrats that I always wanted to eat but never could: they also briefly sold Reptar Cereal and while the sale went over great: it did seem out of place. I hadn’t given thought to Rugrats as a show for years: I’m pushing 30 and that was T.V. show I watched as literal child. There seems to be no end to the things that want to push anniversaries and the nearly endless stream of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and more that make it seem like all the things I knew as a child never really left.
If you asked me at 16 if I’d still be playing Pokemon, Street Fighter and still listening to Kanye West and The Killers while there would still be Star Wars movies: I would have first had a lot of questions about how time travel works and then probably say that such a thing wouldn’t make sense. One would assume that media would move on, one would assume that as technology progressed: we’d make progress and not just nicer versions of old things we loved. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was lovely getting a stylish Castlevania anime but I’d also love that energy placed into something new and original.
I’ve talked about nostalgia before when it comes to Pokemon: Sun/Moon and Pokemon: Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon and how its marketing and gameplay centered around the nostalgia of late 20-somethings like me who had been playing the games for all these years and understood and respected such callbacks. But is the game so enjoyable if you don’t know these references: my little cousin likely get through the game but he wouldn’t have the gut punch I did seeing Red and Gary show up like traveling boyfriends asking about this new Hawaii-like region. So why put them in there? If the average actual player of a Pokemon game isn’t likely to get that reference: why put it there? And that’s the issue with our current weaponized nostalgia. It isn’t done to teach, improve or just enjoy: it’s there because it’s there.
And the sad thing is: we keep buying into it. I’m not sure if you are aware but at least here in parts of the great old United States, things are a hot hot mess: we’re using media to escape our current realities more and more as we refuse to face the current situation of an orange-tinted warmonger in office and issues like racism, homophobia, violence and the threat of terrorism, war and natural disasters. And this isn’t new: we’ve been escaping reality for as long as we could through story, substance and more but at least when I was younger: all of this was new. When I was 12 and saw InuYasha for the first time, it was radically new and different. When I was 10 and arguing with friends over which Boy Band was the best: it was because music like that hadn’t been explored in such a way. When I was 9 playing Pokemon, no game like that had been crafted and distributed for American children. And that’s what this nostalgia cycle is leaving behind: sure, the 1990s were cool and the 2000s were the best: but what made them great was innovation: we didn’t stay stuck thinking of how cool the 1950s were. We did meditate on those things briefly while still continuing to move forward.
Intertextuality is a zeigeisty kind of word. It essentially means a call back in a current piece of media to a further piece of media in that franchise history. It’s been used a lot by video essayists and it’s a fine word but one I don’t use a lot in day to day speech because I find it pretentious. But it’s appropriate for my point. So minor spoilers for games. Sit back and relax. We’re going to talk about a firm grip on the nostalgia and when a callback is not genuine.
I’ve been playing Pokemon for 20 years now. I remember getting Pokemon Red in 1996-7 and enjoyed the game as much as a 6 or 7 year old could. It wasn’t until Pokemon Crystal or really even Pokemon Ruby that I decided to sell my soul to Nintendo and to the franchise. I have since played every game that has come out. Well, the mainstream ones. Never did play that weird JRPG one. But after 20 years of Pokemon, I’ve seen the games reach epic highs like Pokemon Ruby and Pokemon X/Y and I’ve seen it hit some lows like Pokemon Sun/Moon and Pokemon Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby.
I’ve gone on record that Sun/Moon were not my favorites. Despite giving me my favorite round owl son I had serious issues with the game. I didn’t like that the game was hand-holding and too easy. I hated the Rotom-dex. I thought the story was lacking and overall, I just didn’t enjoy the game. But the game had a troubling side since the start: it was aggressively pandering towards us older 20-somethings while also making a game that was built clearly for Japanese children. Each ad for the game made callbacks to the older games and that it’s been 20 years. The game brought back all sorts of things we knew and loved. A new tan Professor Oak. A new surfing Raichu (which Carlos hates). New forms of old Pokemon. Sun/Moon was nostalgia: the game.
And while I bit on the nostalgia, I slogged through the game. And in my key attention to detail as I begrudgingly played through a game I bought with my own money, I noticed a few things. The first was Grimsley. Grimsley is one of the Elite 4 in Black/White and in Black/White 2 (close friends will notice that this is actually one of my favorite games). And there Grimsley was. On the beach. Dressed like Byakuya from Bleach. Ranting on and on about love and loss. I was floored! What was my darling Elite 4 trainer doing? Why was he in a kimono on the beach? Why is he giving me items? What is this nonsense? You do get some clues once you’ve dug deep into the lore but what was the point of adding Grimsley to the game? To give hope to people like me who had given up on the game up until that point?
Another instance was with Colress. Now, this one has a funny story. Carlos and I were playing Sun/Moon around the same time but he was way ahead of me because he liked the game more than I did. He mentioned meeting a man with strange hair and a Nintendo power glove in the game that gave him an item and he thought the man was really interesting. This was the same day Nintendo released a short centered in the Black/White universe of Unova where Colress is shown icing a bunch of people in a city to literal death. The game glosses over some of the violence but the short does not skip on the detail that people likely died as Colress and Team Plasma tried to find a way to better control Kyurem.
I immediately recognized Colress once I met him in game and went back to Carlos barking about how he shouldn’t trust a literal murderer. And sure enough, Colress gives you an item, babbles about research and leaves like he isn’t a snow killer.
What was the point of adding Colress? Was it just a cool callback? Were there no other scientists in game that weren’t evil that the writers couldn’t think of? No, it was just a cool callback to an earlier and much more loved part of the franchise.=
And this isn’t the first time Nintendo has weaponized nostalgia. Pokemon Alpha Sapphire/Omega Ruby was absolutely a giant direct hit to the nostalgia of adults like me who cut their teeth on Ruby/Sapphire and the additions made in the new game involved riding the mythical Latias/Latios and the brilliant Delta Episode which almost almost turned the game around for me. AS/OR was essentially just a retread of Ruby/Sapphire with updated graphics like Pokemon Emerald was. And those games do have value but when they’re done to just redo a game for a cash grab, it’s frustrating. Emerald at least added things to those first generation games that were rough around the edges and did not always age well.
The best parts of the newer games were the times they added to the foundations of the older games like X/Y. I loved being able to have a character with my skin tone and that could dress very fashionably. I loved being able to sit on benches and pet my Pokemon. I loved being able to roller skate around and be given Pokemon from games that I adored like Lucario and adding to its mythos rather than just dropping a Pokemon off and saying “Here, young adult. I hear you like nostalgia. Here’s a Pikachu with a hat. Enjoy your nostalgia and your half-baked game.”
We see intertexuality at work in a lot of video game and comic book movies. Many will be a comic book saga in name only like Captain America: Civil War which had very little actual Civil War and was mostly just Tony and Steve have a lover’s quarrel. We see Star Wars movies that essentially just redo the original trilogy with better graphics. Stranger Things is literally a show based on callbacks but Stranger Things does so with love and reverence while Star Wars: The Force Awakens is done to help hide some of the less than ideal storytelling.
Remember, nostalgia is only as good as the thing it’s based on and while I love Pokemon, my love is not enough to keep me motivated when a game’s only interest is reminding me of how great the 1990s were.
This was different and timely! I don’t do this very often. I mostly just wanted to rant. I am not enjoying Pokemon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon like I thought I would. Motivate me to make my owl son proud.
It started when I was 9 oz of cheap white wine deep into what would stand to be a mostly forgettable meal at the local Olive Garden. In my younger years, I traversed across the Italian peninsula and ate some of the best food of my life. I soaked up Italian culture as any good Classics student would. So as I sat and pondered over a glass of wine that cost the same as my my meal and happened to cost twice as much in the restaurant as it would have if I purchased the exact same entire bottle outside of the fake stucco arched doorway, I asked myself a simple question:
Why the hell do I come here?
I was seated alone; surrounded on all sides by families and children running around hyped up on after dinner chocolates and soda they weren’t supposed to have but were permissively given because “it was a special occasion”. And I started really thinking about why I still come here. Most people who go to Olive Garden understand that they are not getting an authentic taste of the old country. So why come here? The prices aren’t great, the food’s okay, the restaurants are all the same aside from the occasionally too happy to please server.
To answer the question: we gotta go back in time.
When I was little girl, we (and by “we” I mean my family not some weird notion of the royal we) went to places like Olive Garden or Red Lobster when I did something exceedingly good. Back then Olive Garden was the perfect place for a middle/upper middle class family like mine. More expensive than most casual dining establishments but not out of the price range for a family of 3 to eat multiple courses without breaking the worrying about the state of the light bill. We went to Olive Garden when I made honor roll. When I finished a dance performance. When I ranked in a Latin Club competition (yes, I took Latin in middle school. And junior high. And high school. And college.). It was a place to celebrate. It was a place we didn’t go to often but when we did, we enjoyed it. It was different from Spaghetti Warehouse, a place my dad loved, and so we went to more often and more casually. Going to Olive Garden meant getting dressed up. I had to have my hair up, little stockings on and usually an obnoxiously frilly dress. It was a special occasion kind of place.
During my late teen years and even the post-college career it was a hang out spot. Taylor works there and his roommates did, too. I spent plenty of time there picking him up from work or meeting him there to hang out later. We abused his discount. Got punch drunk off of free bread sticks and drowned our miseries in glasses of wine that costs the same as the damn bottle would if we were at any other places. We stayed because of the discount. We went because of the friendship and we savored because we could use the restaurant as a de-facto headquarters. In fact, I was there so often that I got my own server’s name tag: a gift from hosts and hostesses that came to know me and my order due simply to the fact that I was always around.
So why do I come here now?
Because I can.
Because after the partial collapse of the middle class and the lowering of prices: Olive Garden suddenly went from a place I went to only dressed up for after church to a place I could visit in my sweat pants and a v-neck t-shirt. When you remove the monolithic-like barrier of entry to almost any place: it easily becomes more attainable and thus culturally ubiquitous. Anyone is welcome here. Everyone is sort of family. No one can judge you. The bartender can’t judge Amber and I for getting wine drunk after a hard day at work. Or Taylor and I for shoving mints into my shirt as we attempt to flee the restaurant. No one can judge us for playing the trivia game the electronic payment kiosk at the table offers and no one can say a damn thing about how many bread sticks I eat and with how much Italian dressing.
Olive Garden became a safe haven. A place to relax. The food isn’t the goal; you aren’t there because you want a real taste of Roma. You’re there because it’s attainable, common, simple and accessible. You’re there because you want to be. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong for that.
Enjoy your bread sticks.
Drown your sorrows in salad and overpriced wine.
Stuff your pockets with chocolate mints.
I won’t judge you.
Save me a seat.
I’ve never been coy about the part of me that is truly culturally a pluralist. I in-spirit renounced my American heritage long before I took my first steps across the Atlantic and by the time I emerged onto Germanic soil, I was already at least in a cultural sense a French man, Japanese schoolgirl and English poet.
That was until, of course, I went to Bavaria. I experienced a land and culture so far unlike my own but with the same cultural feelings of strength, hard-work and enjoying what you have. I spent 5 weeks overseas, mostly in Germanic countries and I left with a love of German food and the slight and occasional German phrase.
Once I returned stateside, my desire for the German flavors I came to crave were mostly left to languish. I was from a part of Texas that was no more German than scotch and the even mention of “German food” conjured to them faint images of sauerkraut and bratwurst and men clad in lederhosen (which are an undeniable segment but not the only aspects of German cuisine.).
It wasn’t until I moved back to San Antonio and moreover the part of Texas that was at times intensely German that my love of German food was able to take form again but really only to the occasional trip to New Braunfels to have it in one or two special places once or twice a year. What I was missing was the cornerstone of what made German food so amazing: it’s accessibility. The food I was eating in Austria and in Germany were available anywhere, everywhere and at nearly any time of day. This is where I came to love the concept of a double starch often enjoying two different potato dishes alongside pasta and a slab of whatever-schnitzel (it was often chicken for me, but the cafeteria where most of my meals came from produced schnitzels I didn’t think were possible). The food was unpretentious and humble but delicious and satisfying.
The beauty of it was that it didn’t feel foreign.
So when I come to find out that I can fill my cravings for German food in a downtown, historical eatery I had to check it out. This led me to lunch at Schilo’s.
This place has apparently been around forever and is a place I walk by all the time, but I was always a little afraid to go in there, having been lied to time and time again with the promise of “authentic” German food. My cynicism led me to miss out on so many opportunities to visit this wonderful establishment.
Never have I been so wrong.
I sat down, and immediately enjoyed the prospect of seating myself. I ordered something simple, potato pancakes. Now, this is a dish I came to love overseas and finding it well-made here stateside has been an awful challenge if I can find them at all.
Now, when I see house-made root beer on a menu, regardless of whatever image-based soda detox I’m on, I’m ordering one. Or several. Schilo’s did not make me regret my choice to imbibe in the fizzy elixir.
My lunch arrived and the waitress asked me the very traditional question: “Would you like sour cream?” to which I said “yes.” far too emphatically and quickly. I waited patiently for the curdled milk product and continued to do something non-traditional. I smothered the potato love stack with Schilo’s house-made hot mustard (another German favorite and this one has an ingredient list that you can understand and maybe has 6 total ingredients. As mustard should.) the spice was wonderful. Then came applesauce, far more traditional for a meal like this which was absolutely spectacular. I wish it was socially acceptable to order “vats” of anything.
Each bite I felt like I was in Muchen again. Potato. Mustard. Sour cream. Applesauce! Potato. Mustard. Mustard. Potato. Sour cream. Potato. Potato. Applesauce.
It was fantastic. I ate with gusto. I ate with pleasure.
Schilo’s was a place that I had to stop myself from replying to questions in German.
Danke would be unknown there, as would Bitte. Prost would make no sense and Bier would be unheard of. But in my heart, I was in Bavaria. I was Prussian. I was in a local biergarten enjoying lunch and doing German things in Germany or at least I was in my heart.
It’s been a few years since my global trek and I never thought I’d miss Germany and Austria more than Italy. I didn’t leave craving pasta, I craved potatoes.While I swooned over pasta frutti de mare, I desired schnapps and wienerschnitzel.
So for an afternoon I was Prussian until my need to return to work snapped me out of my pipe dream and I heartily thank Schilo’s for letting me for a day be back in Bayvern.