Food – the call of home

What foods make you think of home?

When I look back at growing up in Minnesota, I think of the BLTs my mom made me for breakfast, or the chicken-noodle soup we’d have for Christmas Eve (which I still make – recipe in Finding Myself in Britain), or Iowa-fried chicken cooked in my grandma’s cast-iron pan, or my mom’s cinnamon rolls and homemade rye bread (yep, recipes for those too in the book). They call macaroni and cheese “comfort food” for a reason.

Photo: cyclonebill, Flickr

Photo: cyclonebill, Flickr

I knew that food plays an important role in memory and emotions (comfort eating, anyone?), but recently I was taken aback by just how powerful is the absence of loved and familiar foods for people away from their country of origin. I realized this when I raised a question in several Facebook groups for American ex-pats in the UK, having come in contact with one of the key buyers of the American food section at a massive grocery chain. Intrigued with the idea of influencing this chain and their selection American products, I posted these questions to my fellow expats: “What foods do you miss? What do you wish this grocery-store chain would stock?”

I posted and left for my gym class, and when I came back a couple of hours later I was stunned at the rapid response. In that short amount of time, one group had 92 replies; another had 48; another 32. I clearly had hit a nerve.

I loved scrolling down the comments, for some foods that others hankered after I forgot about, such as pizza rolls. Other entries I could understand the draw of, although they didn’t apply to me, such as coffee creamer (I don’t drink coffee). Some items kept popping up again and again, such as real dill pickles (no sugar added, please) and real bacon (streaky, that is).

Photo: Maggie Mudd, Flickr

Real pickles don’t have sugar. Photo: Maggie Mudd, Flickr

I saw lots of cracker type longings: graham crackers (digestive biscuits just aren’t the same), saltine crackers, Cheez-its, Wheat Thins, Goldfish, and especially Triscuits, as evidenced by this comment: “For the love of all that is holy, they have one-thousand types of ‘cracker’-type products, but nothing I have found that approaches the taste or texture of a TRISCUIT.” Amen.

Photo: Yasmeen, flickr

The mighty Triscuit. Photo: Yasmeen, flickr

And Velveeta and Kraft macaroni and cheese (which many supermarkets stock, but at 3 quid a pop I can’t justify it – the equivalent to 5 bucks a box, which only costs a dollar Stateside) and Old Bay seasoning and Jiffy cornbread mix and Cool Whip and Miracle Whip and Eggo waffles (PyelotBoy heartily agrees) and, again and again, Hidden Valley ranch packets.

A British person reading this list might think, huh? That sounds like a lot of processed food – why would they miss it? But we do. These foods scream memories or convenience or form the missing ingredient in a favorite recipe (Fritos for Frito pie, anyone?). Food can signify home to us because of the people we’ve eaten our feasts with; the memories we’ve created; the conversation, love, and sense of knowing and being known.

Photo: Heidi Smith, flickr

Kashi! Photo: Heidi Smith, flickr

For many years, I brought back boxes of Kashi GoLean Crunch, a cereal filled with protein and that satisfying tooth-filling-defying crunch. I think one summer I brought back 22 bags of the stuff, hoarding it in the cupboard under the stairs, grudgingly sharing it with my children. I even made five of my high-school friends bring a couple of bags with them as their “payment” for staying at the vicarage, calling them my Kashi mules. But eventually I tired of it, switching my allegiance to oatmeal (UK: porridge) with a dollop of almond butter to make it rich and nutty. Yet recently, I was cleaning out that cupboard under the stairs and I came upon a crusty old bag of that Kashi GoLean Crunch. How I would have loved it years previously when it was fresh, but now all it was suitable for was the trash.

So what foods would you bring back in a suitcase if you lived away from your country of origin? What screams home to you?

2 Responses

  1. Kelly Schwalbert

    In my suitcases I would carry to Ukraine: 5lb bags of dark chocolate chips (would last me a year), flour tortillas (put them in the freezer when I landed), BBQ sauce and ranch dressing mix.

    Ten years ago we only had one store that stocked American foods and they were so expensive. I would stand in the aisle debating if I really needed to pay $15 for a jar of Nutella. I only did once. It was worth…every…penny!

    My local grocery started carrying a bunch of food from Norway, so I indulged in that regularly and enjoyed boxed soy milk, muesli and sliced overly processed American style cheese – perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches. About every six months, they would stock tortilla chips in 12 oz bags. I would buy up all they had and call the other American missionaries and sell them off or use them as payment for using their washer and dryer. I would also go to TGI Friday’s 1x per month to get fajitas and enjoy mexican style food – especially guacamole and salsa.

    Now, Kiev has tons of foreign foods and foreign restaurants, but the memories of desperation are still there. And I still can’t find tortillas…so those have to come in the suitcase and be put into the freezer when I’m in Ukraine!

    It’s funny though, because when I’m stateside, I search for the foods I love from Ukraine. Thankfully we have a few Russian/Ukrainian food markets within driving distance so I can get my fix.

    1. Kelly, I loved reading this comment! 🙂 It’s so evocative, and we share the same feeling of missing foods – but the UK and Ukraine sound very different in terms of what was available. The scarcity must have really focused your desires in terms of what you missed enough to put in the suitcase. Thank you for commenting!

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