I’d never experienced it before. Amoebas, yes. Worms, yes. Dengue, yes. Broken bones, yes. Malaria dreams, yes. But not cravings for thick juicy hamburgers or plump buttermilk pancakes swimming in melted butter and golden maple syrup or crispy fried chicken with cream gravy.
In spite of all the years of traveling and living among cultures unlike my own, being homesick for the food of my country never was one of the afflictions I suffered. Yet, that is exactly what happened to me in Indonesia. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Indonesian food, the spicy tang of galangal, the bite of chile-infused sambals mixed with the blandness of rice, the smooth mouthfeel of creamy coconut milk.
Actually, two things conspired to plunge me into culinary homesickness.
First of all, I must explain that for nine days I ate in a hotel where a biodiversity conference (integrated pest management) took place. The hotel provided all meals and time, being at a premium, dictated that taking the easy way out meant, well, eating buffet breakfasts and dinners featuring steam-tabled food. So right there, with the loss of choice, I essentially moved into a culinary space occupied by soldiers, prisoners, and boarding-school students: institutional food, in other words, even if I were in Indonesia. To the credit of the hotel kitchen staff, the chef and his cooks went out of their way to try to share as many Indonesian dishes as possible, to teach us the variety found in that venerated cuisine, touched by so many culinary traditions over the centuries.
The loss of control over what I ate evoked intense feelings and led me to think hard about a lot of things I’d taken for granted about eating.
Secondly, as the days went by, the hotel kitchen no longer labeled most of the dishes in Indonesian and English, but rather just in Indonesian, so barring a linguistic fluency I do not possess, and never will, I did not know WHAT I was eating. And many times, I did not know necessarily HOW to eat it.
I sat back, as it were, observing with amazement this state of affairs. Even though food existed in abundance all around me at meal times, I still went hungry. And others soon expressed the same surprising feelings to me.
What an experience it was to sense firsthand what culinary exiles feel, the hunger that pummels them physically and mentally, the longing for the food that makes them who they are, the underpinnings of their identity. When people travel, this happens, but it is only a temporary state.
I found myself dreaming of food, thinking about the first thing I would eat when I stepped off the plane back in the US, planning menus for when I could set my cast-iron frying pan on my stovetop and cook.
And then it struck me that I, perhaps for the first time, really understood more clearly what culinary exile truly meant, what drove the women behind the cookbook that became In Memory’s Kitchen. I’d moved from an intellectual perspective on the food of exile to one of deep visceral sorrow, a sense of how that loss transforms cuisines.
A story I’d heard years before came to mind: in the early 1960s, a young Pakistani student accepted into a prestigious Ph.D. program in the US arrived, filled with excitement over living out one of his dreams. Yet, a month later, he returned home, half-starved, because he couldn’t eat the food. And, at the time, the food he knew couldn’t be bought for any amount of money in that small university town.
Eating is a profoundly intimate act, in many ways even more intimate than sex. Allowing food to pass my lips gives the producer, the cook, the server awesome power. Eating, by its very nature, evokes intense feelings – disgust, sorrow, love, nostalgia.
And what people think about food reflects what they feel about food. Feelings cannot be separated from thinking.
For more, see:
Food Habits Bibliography - by Robert Dirks, Illinois State University
Food Ways in American Culture – University of North Carolina Library
Shepherd, Richard and Raats, Monique (2006). The psychology of food choice , Volume 3. Cambridge, Mass: CABI.
Vartanian, Lenny R., Herman, C. Peter, and Wansink, Brian (2008). “Are we aware of the external factors that influence our food intake?” Health Psychology 27 (5): 533–8.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen