Everybody’s Eating Like It’s the ’90s Again – Jaya Saxena

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From espresso martinis to pesto and sun-dried tomatoes, food from the Clinton era has us totally buggin’

As a child of the ’90s, it is now my turn to watch teenagers and younger adults run wild with the fashions of my youth. The school two blocks from my house is full of skaters in baggy cargo pants, kids with tiny backpacks and crop tops, and, god help me, low-cut jeans. On TikTok, they’re just posting footage of high schools in the ’90s as “vibes.” It’s fine, such is the way of aging. But the dream of the ’90s is not just alive in clothing; It’s back with a vengeance in food, too.

The ’90s food resurgence has been in the works for a few years. In 2019, the LA Times wrote about the comeback of sun-dried tomatoes, which once appeared on pesto and focaccia sandwiches or speckled in cream cheese for the entirety of the Clinton era. That same year, Eater made the case for the espresso martini, as it had already begun its resurgence in Australia, and for a reboot of white chocolate. Recently, Timothée Chalamet, born smackdab in the middle of the ’90s, enjoyed espresso martinis with Larry David, creator of Seinfeld, one of the ’90s most beloved sitcoms, at Sant Ambroeus in New York City.

Inspired, I’ve since ordered an espresso martini at one restaurant, a goat-cheese salad with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette at another, and multiple restaurants I’ve been eyeing have put desserts like poached pears and chocolate mousse on the menu. (I haven’t seen molten chocolate cake yet, but its progenitor Jean-Georges Vongerichten is still going strong.) You may have made a trendy TikTok recipe using Boursin, and Sam Sifton recently encouraged people to make baked brie in his newsletter. Hell, Vienetta is back.

There are two prongs of nostalgia at work here. One end is that these trends remind people in their 30s and 40s of things we enjoyed when we were younger. Remember when the hallmark of a fancy meal was something served with a balsamic vinegar reduction? Remember Dunkaroos? It’s as simple as being comforted by the flavors of our pasts, which we can use as a shared language, even as our knees start hurting more and we’re thinking about our mortgages. Kidding, of course. We could never afford to own our own homes, but we can afford snacks. It is plainly fun, if sometimes unnerving in a reminding-you-of-your-inevitable-mortality sort of way, to watch a new generation discover things that you have long cherished, or at least been aware of.

Then, on the other end, is the projected nostalgia people develop for eras they were either too young to fully remember, or weren’t alive to experience. And thanks to social media like Instagram and TikTok, nostalgia has been put into hyperdrive (some parts of the internet have already moved onto the early aughts), with trends zig-zagging across countries. Espresso martinis are all over TikTok (and are now so popular they’re driving bartenders nuts), as is pesto, and one-pot orzo with sun-dried tomatoes. There are also hundreds of videos reminiscing about Toaster Strudel, Lunchables, Nesquik, and the aesthetics of Memphis-designed Taco Bells and old Pizza Huts. That love for retro design is something more fast-food companies are banking on, as Pizza Hut and Burger King have both changed their logos to be more reminiscent of their ’90s looks.

Many of the ’90s trends — pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, espresso drinks — were part of the regional Italian boom kicked off with the 1992 release of Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Italian Cooking: “Americans were coming to terms with the fact that Italian food was more than a plate of spaghetti and meatballs — it was a cuisine with discrete regions, like Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna,” wrote Taste in its ’90s trend retrospective. America began developing a taste, and a curiosity for “authentic” cuisine (however loaded the term) like French cheeses and Japanese sushi.

It’s been easy to welcome these flavors back because, to put it simply, they never stopped being delicious. You can’t watch Samin Nosrat make pesto and focaccia on Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and not immediately want some for yourself, even if you first had pesto at California Pizza Kitchen. Baked brie with warm jam, cheesecake, creme brulee — all things that taste amazing when done well. And without the pressure of the initial menu takeover where these flavors appeared at every restaurant and dinner party, it’s easier to just enjoy them.

There are absolutely some things I’d rather leave in the ’90s, like every snack food being low-fat or layering skirts over jeans. But for now, I’m good with rejoicing in espresso martinis and poached pears. Because in a few years, it’ll inevitably be back to bacon and cupcakes.

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