In 1995, Barbie had a food court. The neon pink and teal set came with mini plastic lunch trays, which you could adorn with burgers, pizza, and soft serve ice cream. Barbie, I remember, was one of my earliest keys to the world outside of my own. Her clothes, I figured, were the fashionable default. Her body was as well. So if she and her friends were hanging out in a mall food court, so much that Mattel deemed it an important enough set to create alongside her literal house, I imagined this is where the rest of the world ate. This was important. This was the culture.
The presence of the mall in her storyline was also the perfect encapsulation of why I deeply resented Barbie; I was supposed to want her life, but I didn’t. In the pop culture I consumed, the mall was as ubiquitous as school, the place kids went when the bell rang, to get away from their parents, to see and be seen. But my city childhood was devoid of food courts and the Rainforest Cafe. This, to me, was not a bad thing. While I knew malls were the culture, I hated the culture; malls represented everything I loathed about the suburban experience — the necessity for cars, the condensing of neighborhood amenities into one building owned by a corporation, the fast-food takeover of America, Pandora bracelets. Why eat in a food court, I thought, when you could eat anywhere else? I developed no nostalgia for the mall, and I longed for its death.
Now, that death is possibly here and has heralded a cultural phenomenon I call the Great Mall Reconsideration — a wave of reports about the mall’s rise, fall, heyday, and influence, like the ones running on this very website. This collective nostalgia for the mall has made my lack of growing up with one feel more pronounced. I do not feel like I missed anything, per se, but the world of mall food felt like one more world I would never experience. Just as I’ll never be a professional NFL player or a college tournament Jeopardy! champion, I will never know what it’s like to pine for the chemical citrus of an Orange Julius.
That lack felt particularly strong when, for this collection of stories, my colleagues began to wax on about the Proustian sensory experiences of mall food smells. How nothing smells as good as Cinnabon, or nothing so bad as working at the Cheesecake Factory. I broke. Why were all these people whose tastes I trusted suddenly in the thrall of Big Food Court? While I retained zero desire to be part of the mall club, my journalistic instincts kicked in; I wanted to understand the fondness for something that seemed to me so plainly awful. It’s well-documented that scent is the sense most connected to memory; inhaling the aroma of Mrs. Fields is like hitting a deep vein of nostalgia.
I realized the only way to do it was to actually go to a mall and experience these scents myself. Maybe I could reverse-engineer appreciation through my senses. Maybe I could stop acting like such a snob and embrace what every other American has had a fine time embracing. Is the draw of the sweet, greasy glaze of Panda Express really that strong? I had to know. I also needed to figure out whether Sbarro smelled more alluring than Chick-Fil-A.
I arrived at the Queens Center Mall in Queens, New York on a Monday afternoon, in the middle of the December holiday shopping season, to the smell of Auntie Anne’s. I once described the scent as “horny butter,” and it was so powerful it overwhelmed any smell that may have been coming from Simply Fresh, the smoothie and açai bowl cafe across the aisle.
From here, I commenced my drive-by smelling. I stopped close enough to every snack stand to quickly lower my mask and get a good whiff. Rather than enticing, most were just alarming, whether by quality or severity. By the time I left, I felt a headache coming on caused by too many scents and not enough ventilation, Body Shop lotion layered on pumpkin spice latte layered on teriyaki stir-fry. Before the sensory overload-induced nausea set in, I managed to eke out a rudimentary ranking, based on the strength, specificity, and overall pleasantness of each odor:
Sbarro is insulting for merely existing in a borough where any slice shop will give you a better slice of pizza. But it also failed the most basic test of making hot dairy and dough smell good. It smelled like a child’s birthday party, with notes of stale cheese and neglected vegetables. Just sad.
12. Potato Corner
By this point in my olfactory journey, my nasal passages were clearly confused. Potato Corner serves fries of all types with flavorings like sour cream and onion or cinnamon sugar. But I could swear that all of those came together to smell strongly of apple juice. Is that maybe what happens when you combine fried potatoes and eight different seasonings? Who among us could parse the secrets of Potato Corner?
11. Cheesecake Factory
Sweet? I think it was sweet. I also want to register that I went to a Cheesecake Factory a different time and did not like the cheesecake but was pleasantly surprised by the lemon-garlic shrimp pasta. It’s nice to know there are still small wonders in the world.
Breading. Salt. A hint of reheated bun. Like trying to poke at a long-dormant memory of fried chicken, but it remains asleep.
9. Famous Rotisserie and Grill
“Rotisserie” gave me hope, so perhaps this is ranking so low because it did not just smell like the rotisserie chicken section of the grocery store. But this smelled like your generic steam tray buffet, sometimes good and sometimes bad and always slightly watery. A great place if your favorite vegetables are the perfectly cubed carrots that come in the freezer bag.
8. Charley’s Philly Steaks
I assumed a cheesesteak place would smell pretty identical to a fast-food burger counter, so I was surprised when the beef smell had its own contours. It was more a whisper of beef, meaty but slightly metallic. Like someone put the essence of canned beef broth into a room diffuser. Good? Absolutely not, but it gets points for being interesting.
7. Sarku Japan
This was the first mall court staple I had straight-up never heard of but was assured was a necessary presence. It smelled like nothing, though, or perhaps it was just drowned out by stronger flavors on each side. Either way, the lack of smell felt like a blessing.
6. Panda Express
Upon first descending into the food court, I was hit with notes of “soy sauce” and “fried,” which I attributed directly to Panda Express. Upon closer inspection, there were elements of “sweet” and “chicken” in there, but mostly it smelled like your average takeout American Chinese restaurant, only much stronger. It wasn’t good necessarily, but it was dramatic, which I imagine could morph into good once relegated to memory
I was optimistic when I rounded a corner and was immediately blasted with the aroma of cinnamon and vanilla, familiar scents from airports and rest stops. But what is amazing the first time then gets stronger and more artificial with each passing inhale. It’s like huffing those scented markers we had in elementary school — yeah, it smells like Strawberry, but soon it starts smelling like Wrong Strawberry, and now you feel like you’re going to pass out. Too much Cinnabon is just Wrong Cake.
4. Gong Cha
A dark horse contender, but it scores points for its subtlety, something sorely lacking throughout the great American shopping mall. Pleasantly fruity with a hint of red bean. Refreshing and earthy at the same time, like one of those old Gap perfumes if we’re talking nostalgia. It’s the kind of scent that makes a 13-year-old feel sophisticated. And given that every teen in line was wearing the low-rise flare jeans and ¾-length tees that were cool when those Gap perfumes first came out, the whole scene was very fitting.
I know from recent experience that the actual poultry product is lackluster, but when it comes to the scent of the signature spices, you do, in fact, gotta hand it to ’em. This smells like a promise that this time, when you order it, it’ll live up to its peppery potential. Perhaps as much as memory, scent is hope — sense removed from its corresponding experience, a fantasy of what could be rather than what is. And in a way, isn’t that what the mall is as well: the promise of community, of abundance, when the actual experience never delivers? Thank you for this lesson, KFC.
2. Halal Guys
Halal Guys was located in the food court, but it probably wouldn’t register as canonical mall food to most. Maybe that’s where it earned its advantage. Unlike the generally fried smells of most of the food court stalls, Halal Guys wafted in with the powerful smell of cumin. It was nice to identify a smell as distinct as that, rather than just “fried” or “beef.” I could have easily lingered there, except I would have looked like an absolute freak just sniffing the air about 10 feet away from the cashier.
1. Auntie Anne’s
You know how in Zelda there are those huge fairies that burst forth from giant flowers, giggling and bright, embracing tiny Zelda with their warm, plush cleavage in a way that’s about as sexual as a game rated E10+ can get? Auntie Anne’s smells like that. It’s the beacon in the darkness of endless piercing kiosks and Foot Lockers. This is a scent I understand. Auntie Anne’s is warmth and fried butter flavor and allure, and it’s all-encompassing, but in a way that feels welcoming. If this is the mall, I understand the mall. More smelling would reveal this is not the mall.
Obviously, there’s a lot from the Mall Food Canon missing here. The Queens Center Mall in 2022 does not have a Rainforest Cafe, a Mrs. Fields, or whatever a “Steak Escape” is. There was no Hot Dog on a Stick, though I know what a hot dog smells like (fine). There was no California Pizza Kitchen, but I remembered that I did go to one in Connecticut a few years ago and got a Brussels sprouts and bacon flatbread, which was enjoyable, but I was also too distracted by the menu option of “two in a bowl” (two soups served in one bowl) that I didn’t register much else about the experience.
Depending on whom I ask, a place like CPK is either integral to the mall experience or a separate entity. I’m not sure if the smells from the Queens Center food court’s McDonald’s (fry grease), Shake Shack (pure beef), and Chipotle (onion and cilantro) count as mall foods or if their ubiquity transcends mall-ness. I also sniffed my way by more unique offerings like Burmese Bites, C Bao “Asian buns,” Hokkaido Baked Cheese Tart, and a conveyor-belt sushi joint. While our collective retail nostalgia for these places may be lacking, it makes sense that they should exist in a mall food court, or at least this one. Despite regular reports of the mall’s death, when I visited the Queens Center, it was lively, with people milling in and out of the JCPenney and some folks starting to line up for pictures with Santa. At noon, the food court was about a third full. And unlike most suburban malls, this one is conveniently serviced by multiple subway lines and express buses.
We’re certainly past the mall heyday, but I thought of the families eating Burmese tea salad and vegan bao, the children who’d grow up to feel a nostalgic rush at the scent of a baked cheese tart instead of a tray of french fries. Here was a building in the center of one of the most diverse counties in the world, catering at least a little to the population it served rather than being a locus of compulsory assimilation. The mall didn’t have to look like Barbie’s food court forever.
Of course, the mall didn’t have to look like anything at all. It didn’t have to be. There were things that were sacrificed for malls to exist — people, neighborhoods, futures. And as much as I want to be the kind of person who cherishes the mainstream lowbrow, who finds joy, ironic or sincere, in Taco Bell, the kind of person who reminds herself that everyone is just trying to get by and make do with what’s available to them and that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism anyway, I will never be someone who smells Cinnabon and thinks solely of childhood innocence. Instead, I will think of how these smells could have been other smells. How these memories could have been better ones.
There are plenty of things I am nostalgic for that I cannot in good conscience root for now, and while nostalgia should never be used to eschew criticism, it can provoke empathy. Basically, everyone smells. Everyone has a thing that flips a switch in their brain that floods them with excitement, and most of the time they were not old enough to have been in charge of where they were when they developed it. I will never understand malls. Frankly, I don’t want to. But now, I understand the people who understand them a little more.
I have still never smelled an Orange Julius.
Jaya Saxena is a correspondent at Eater.com, writing about everything from labor to food culture to why American potato chips are so boring.
Pablo Espinosa Gutiérrez is a psychedelic illustrator with a lifelong dream of secretly living in a mall.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein