It’s not just the flavor. It’s everything else that surrounds the food you eat upon return to a place you call home: the helping hands in the kitchen, the familiar cooking equipment, the famiglia sitting around the table, the landscape you pass along the way. This all seasons the experience in ways I simply cannot replicate in my life across the ocean. It’s the essence of being Italian American.
Sure, I could scour 15 different markets in Denmark to find a can of rootbeer, or use a store-bought jar of tomato puree to make my family’s sauce, or buy a dozen ears of corn at the supermarket. But some piece of the experience will be missing.
When picking up sweet corn here in Northeast Ohio, I pass corn fields lining the country roads I used to drive everyday en route to my summer job. I might stop at the roadside stand where ears of corn are heaped onto tables under a temporary tent. Other shoppers will test the corn’s worthiness – poking a fingernail in a kernel to see if it’s juicy or peeling back the husk to check for kernel coverage.
The first spoonful of rootbeer float foam may take me back to summer weeknights-turned-special with a trip to The Rootbeer Stand. I remember how indulgent it felt to have chili dogs and rootbeer floats delivered right to our car window.
The stories, memories, people, and places surrounding a dish get baked right in.
Last week I had the chance to help my family can a second batch of tomatoes to get them through the year. It’s been one of the most formative traditions in my life and work.
At several points throughout the day I paused, mentally took a step back, and memorized everything. The 1941 stove that once belonged to my grandma’s grandma. The metal spice cabinet still holding jars of chili flakes and fennel seeds handled by my great-grandmother. The specific roster of family members working toward our goal.
Since moving away from Ohio, first to Oregon and now to Denmark, I’ve become acutely aware that tradition is not stagnant. I savor these days while I can because you can’t take the tangibles with you – neither across geography nor time. Someday the furniture will be sold (or tossed), the corn fields converted to houses, our regular haunts boarded up. But you can store it in your food memory, where it will forever be recalled as an accompaniment to each future bite.
And that’s why, when I twirl that next forkful of spaghetti with our family sauce, no matter where or when, it will take me to a place that no other jar of tomatoes can… home.