A few months ago, I saw that BlogHer was commissioning submissions for a food writing anthology. I thought, “Oh, I should totally write something for that”—and then promptly forgot all about it (or, more honestly, put it on the back burner—hah!—because I was too scared to just sit down and start writing).
The day before the submission deadline, I was still hesitant. I briefly succumbed to doubt and decided not to write anything, but then found myself opening a text file and hammering out several paragraphs anyway. I read through what I’d written, ran a quick spell-check and immediately pressed send without letting myself think too much about it for fear that I’d lose my nerve.
I managed to continue not thinking about it for many weeks afterwards, until I saw an email from BlogHer in my inbox saying “Congratulations, you’ve been chosen for book!”—at which point I squealed and did a little happy dance and realized just how much I’d really wanted to be chosen for the book. It’s my first piece of published food writing outside of Principia Gastronomica and I’m rather proud of it.
The anthology is called Roots: Where Food Comes From and Where It Takes Us, and it’s available now as an e-book. It’s filled with food-related essays from 36 writers, including Maki of Just Hungry (one of my favorite food blogs), David Leite of (the James-Beard-Award-winning) Leite’s Culinaria, and little old me. I’m reprinting my essay here, but I recommend checking out the full book for a good dose of humor, nostalgia, recipes and musings on how food can be so much more than just food.
My Culinary Map
The map of my life is a culinary one. From the red beans and rice of the southern United States to the fish and chips of southern England, I mark the stations of my existence with the meals that define each place.
I’m an Army brat and an expat. I’ve never had a hometown, and my roots are of the portable kind: I set them down wherever I happen to be at any given moment. The hardest question for me to answer is “Where are you from?”—and the easiest way for me to answer it is by setting a table with the foods I’ve gathered on my journey through the world. I only spent a year in New Orleans, where I was born, but when I sit down to a bowl of gumbo, I revisit that city I barely know and I make it a part of myself again. I grew up mostly in the Midwest and still find comfort and a sense of identity in the foods I associate with the heartland: corn on the cob, hamburgers on the grill, macaroni and cheese. Some of my childhood, all of my teenage years and most of my 20s were spent in Germany, where I revealed myself as a foreigner every time I opened my mouth to speak, but where—as in most countries—accent and heritage don’t matter when you sit around a table sharing food with others.
Through everything, my family and the meals we always ate together have been a constant in my life. When I first had to fend for myself in the kitchen—in a tiny student apartment in Germany, over 5,000 miles from anywhere I could (at the time) call home, I subsisted for months on mashed potatoes and packaged pasta sauce. And then I realized I needed something more. I needed my family at the table again—I needed my Oma’s eggplant parmesan and my grandmother’s ham pilau, I needed my mom’s meatloaf, and those red beans and rice, and that macaroni and cheese. So I recreated them all, and I felt grounded again. I knew who I was and where I had come from. I brought the old me up to speed with the new one, and we moved on together, family recipes in hand.
Even today when I feel I’ve lost my bearings, I return to familiar landmarks: tiny pasta stars with butter and parmesan cheese, pork barbecue on a hamburger bun with my mom’s coleslaw on the side. But getting lost in unknown territory can be rewarding sometimes, because you never know what treasures you’ll find. Like a magpie, I collect the dishes that entice me wherever I go. The taste of Thai papaya salad is now nearly as evocative to me as the avocado with curry dressing I used to eat on my grandparents’ porch in Florida; though I grew up with the avocado but only discovered the Thai salad five years ago, both dishes have the power to transport me. They loom large on my culinary map alongside the udon noodles of Kyoto, the soupy dumplings of Shanghai, the tagliatelle al ragù of Bologna. When I eat these foods, I tug the threads leading to the parts of my psyche—and my heart—that I’ve left all around the world. I gather these scattered pieces back into myself, and I feel whole.
I live in England now. I’m not from here and I might not stay here, but I belong here as much and as little as I belong anywhere else. I eat the seasons to solidify my sense of time and place. The peas and asparagus of the spring, the squash and game of the fall, the lamb from the hills on one side of Brighton and the fish from the sea on the other—all of these things tell me where I am and connect me to this country that is and is not mine. I grow my own vegetables in the garden, and as I dig up roots in the rich soil, I put down roots, too. The smell of the earth and the taste of the radishes and spinach that spring from it remind me that I’m here, now, wherever “here” is on the map and for however long. I’m here and I’m home.