I am extremely selective when it comes to cookies. I’m not a fan of most mass-produced sweets in general, but even cookies from the finest bakeries and most skillful home bakers frequently fail to satisfy my picky palate. For me to wholeheartedly enjoy a cookie, it needs to be the perfect balance of soft and chewy, with a tiny bit of crunch on the edges; not too thick, but not too thin; saltier than most would expect, but not too salty; buttery but not overwhelming, flavorful, just the right proportion of mix-ins...and if you’re putting frosting on that cookie, just don’t.
(To be clear: these are not standards to which I think any sane baker should hold their cookies. I don’t expect anyone to conform to them. I’m just nuts).
But to be honest, there is one notable exception: those soft, crappy, snow-white sugar cookies heaped with artificial-tasting frosting that come in a plastic clamshell at the grocery store. You know the ones. God, do I love those.
What the hell is up with that?
That’s a pretty universal experience. So universal, in fact, that high-status food writers have taken to recreating our childhood favorites in a way that appeases both our cravings and our “good taste” sensibilities. Claire Saffitz ran an enormously popular YouTube show dedicated to the topic before the exposure of Bon Appétit. And Eric Kim, writing for NYT, actually created a recipe for the very cookies of which I speak. (Obviously I made them. Obviously they were amazing).
No matter how “refined”, discerning, or choosy your palate is as an adult, there’s usually at least a handful (possibly more like an entire grocery store aisle) of decidedly un-refined foods that you adore. They’re probably foods you ate frequently or loved dearly growing up. If you give that a moment’s thought, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You’re an adult now. Your tastes have changed tremendously. You probably enjoy lots of things you didn’t used to, like vegetables and coffee, and have grown to dislike things you used to love, like putting ketchup or ranch on everything. So how is it that I still go for the crappy grocery store sugar cookies when even the most artful, handmade cookies don’t do it for me? Why do we still crave certain childhood foods when they, theoretically, shouldn’t measure up to our adult standards?
Your digestive system and your brain are connected in an extremely intricate biological feedback system that involves each area continually telling the other what it needs or wants. As such, hunger is not just based in your digestive system; your brain gets involved too, to help you figure out how to get food, which foods to eat, and when to stop.* Sometimes you’ll eat a food whose tastes and textures are particularly pleasurable, and that sets of a cascade of activity in the reward centers of your brain. One of your brain’s main jobs is to seek out things that cause that reward activity, so chances are that you’ll eat that yummy food over and over, reinforcing the association that your brain is forming between eating that food and receiving a rush of dopamine. That’s how you come to really, really like certain foods.
Have you ever noticed that if you’re really not into whatever you’re eating for dinner, quite often you’ll never feel “properly full” eating that food, no matter how much of it you eat? That’s because satiety, or the feeling that we know colloquially as “feeling full,” is not simply about having a certain quantity of food in your stomach. True satiety, wherein your body tells you it’s time to stop eating, can depend heavily on the sensory properties of the food, as well as how much you want or like that food. (That’s also responsible for the phenomenon of the “dessert stomach”—when you’re stuffed at the end of a meal, but then somehow there’s a little more room in your stomach when you’re presented with a delicious-looking dessert. Because the tastes and textures associated with the dessert are different from those of the meal you just ate, your body says “hang on, we’re not at capacity just yet!”).
The dessert stomach is real!
As such, cravings, which always involve foods that you love, are a deeply psychological experience. Though hunger can intensify cravings, craving a certain food doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about your state of hunger—it just tells you that your brain wants that food very much, and it’s almost impossible to satisfy a craving with anything except the food being craved (yes, your brain knows the difference between sugar-free black bean avocado brownies and real brownies; they will not “curb the craving”).* The food was locked into your brain by high levels of reinforcement, possibly early on in your life, when your brain was particularly malleable. But your brain didn’t just learn to associate that food with “good,” it also learned why that food is good. It coded whatever else you were experiencing when you experienced the pleasure of eating that food. Maybe you were only allowed to eat that food on special occasions, so your reward centers were already on overdrive when you ate. Maybe a parent always gave the food to you when you were upset or under the weather, so your brain associated the food with feeling loved and comforted. I probably learned to love those crappy grocery store cookies because they were served at birthday parties when I was little—really fun ones, too, maybe summertime pool parties. Now I see those cookies and my brain gets a little jolt of dopamine remembering (unconsciously) how fun summer was when I was eight.
So in sum, we crave childhood foods because our brains and bodies don’t forget how awesome it was to eat those foods, even when similar foods wouldn’t qualify as “awesome” nowadays. What that also means is that eating those foods can sometimes be just as pleasurable and satisfying an experience as eating the finest foods from the most masterful chefs.* What that most certainly means is I’ll be adding those crappy grocery store cookies to my cart the next time I go shopping. It’s the least I deserve.
*Sometimes our body’s eating and pleasure cues can go a little haywire. Binge eating disorder is a very real and treatable eating disorder. If you think you may be struggling with binge eating or similar eating psychopathology, please seek support.