From second grade to eighth grade, cereal was my portal to the United States. Whenever my dad flew from where we lived in Indonesia to the U.S. on business, he’d bring a near-empty suitcase so he could fill it with Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Captain Crunch, and whatever other colorful boxes caught his eye. When he came home, my brother and I would deliberate over which to open first, rationing ourselves. I treasured each bowl enough that once, when a gecko flung out of the box along with a kaleidoscopic pour of fruity pebbles, I simply brought the creature outside before dipping my spoon into the bowl.
The longer I lived in Indonesia, the less I remembered about life in the United States, even though others reminded me that the U.S. was “home.” Whenever I ate cereal, I imagined an alternate version of myself. The girl I envisioned lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a brick house like that of my cousins. She wore outfits from Limited Too, a store I’d visited once during summer vacation. She somehow didn’t have braces or wear glasses. In imagining what I might be like if I lived in the U.S., I began to construct my own version of the country based on summer visits and foggy memories of early childhood. As a result, the U.S. became more artifice than reality, a place I imagined might absolve me of my complicated feelings about identity.
But my illusions about the U.S. were as sugary and insubstantial as the cereal I associated with the country; they dissolved as soon as I moved to Texas during my freshman year of high school. Once there, I realized that even though I spoke the language and looked the part, I felt different from my peers. As much as I wanted to feel at ease in the U.S., I found myself torn between the reality of the place where I lived – all cookie-cutter homes and gleaming aisles of grocery stores – and where I’d grown up. I felt homesick for Indonesia, a place I could never truly call home, privilege making thorny my presence there.
For years, I buried the feelings of loss that came along with leaving Indonesia and instead tried to forge different lives in the states I’ve lived since then. But, like the bowls of cereal of my past that once brought me back to a country I’d left behind, I was given a piece of Kopiko after a meal a couple years ago, and the even the sight of the wrapper was enough to transport me to my old house, one shaded by a rainbow eucalyptus trees and robust flower blooms. Food can be nostalgia embodied, a means of traveling to a place you wish you could return to, a way of bringing to life a memory. Candy in hand, I remembered wandering aisles of the outdoor market, where sounds became a kind of song: vendors chattering, pans clanging, someone calling nasi goreng! nasi goreng!, live birds chirruping from a small cage, knives whisking over metal sharpeners, chickens scuttling around table legs looking for scraps, and motorcycles chortling to life before whining down the road. For sale were tables of produce – spiky round rambutan, bundles of greens, starfruit stacked in precarious piles, shrink-wrapped mango, mounds of durian – slick bodies of fish gutted and chickens plucked clean of their feathers. Nothing went to waste. Blood was boiled down until it congealed, and intestines were arranged on plates like long tendrils of spaghetti.
Perhaps food isn’t a permanent means of returning to anywhere, but a taste can be enough to bring you home. In the following essays, writers interrogate the complicated pasts of place through food, express nostalgia for long-gone homes, and find belonging by sharing meals. As for me, when I put the Kopiko on my tongue, thousands of miles away, the blend of coffee and sugar resonated bittersweet, as it always had, before melting away.
1. I Want Crab. Pure Maryland Crab. (Bill Addison, September 15, 2016, Eater)
I moved away from Maryland over 25 years ago, but if I don’t make it back to the state at least once a year for steamed crabs, I’m like a bird whose migration pattern has been disrupted. I’m unsettled in the world.
Back in Maryland after time away, Bill Addison digs into a pile of local crab while ruminating on the history, preparation techniques, best places to eat, and future of crab in Baltimore.
2. NASA is learning the best way to grow food in space (Sarah Scoles, June 6, 2018, Popular Science)
Sure, astronauts can gaze down at Earth and see its most beautiful spots—literally all of them—every 90 minutes. But those places are always out of reach, reminders of how far away sea level is. Having something nearby that photosynthesizes might cheer the crew.
A complex set of factors such as humidity, mold, and a host of other ecosystem variants makes growing plants in space a challenge. But far away from the comforts of home, astronauts have begun cultivating zinnias and lettuce on board, thanks to the work of scientist Gioia Massa and her team, who are part of an experiment called Veggie.
3. Say It with Noodles: On Learning to Speak the Language of Food (Shing Yin Khor, February 27, 2018, Catapult)
In this beautiful illustrated essay, Shing Yin Khor expresses how difficult it is for her to communicate emotions verbally. She instead uses food as a means to share feelings of disappointment, love towards others and, eventually, love toward herself as well.
4. Eating to America (Naz Riahi, November 2018, Longreads)
Two years after the Iran-Iraq war ended, and six months after her father, a political prisoner, was executed, Naz Riahi and her mother, Shee Shee, move to the U.S. There, homesick and grieving, Riahi finds happiness and hope through food.
The food sat inside me, taking over spaces that had been full of worry just minutes before and making the worry go away.
5. An Adopted Obsession with Soondubu Jjigae, Korean Silken-Tofu Stew (Bryan Washington, February 20, 2019, The New Yorker)
I first tasted gochujang because of a boy. We were in a busted strip mall, just west of Houston’s I-610 loop. A lot of things were changing in my life, and I hadn’t been home—home home—in a minute, and we were too broke to go most places.
Though he ends up splitting up with his partner, Bryan Washington’s love for soondubu jjigae remains strong. Washington recounts his efforts to figure out how to make the stew on his own, and eventually brings the recipe home.
6. The Food of My Youth (Melissa Chadburn, July 9, 2018, The New York Review)
In search of a better future, Melissa Chadburn’s mother brings her family to northern California, where they “lived on saltines with peanut butter and beans from a can.” At fifteen, Chadburn is taken to a group home where her hunger is satiated, but she is treated as a case number rather than a child.
Only, for us, the explosions had already happened. The places we’d called home had been lit up and burned to the ground, with nothing left save for the blackened foundations of our past. We kids were screaming for love, for touch, for home.
7. Chop Suey Nation (Ann Hui, June 21, 2016, The Globe and Mail)
After a blogger wrote a post called “I can’t believe there’s a Chinese restaurant in Fogo,” Ann Hui, influenced by her family, for whom “food was an obsession,” sets out to drive across Canada to figure out how the restaurant owners decided to open shop in such an isolated location and why there’s a Chinese restaurant in nearly every Canadian town. Hui wrote a book, Chop Suey Nation, based on her article.
The name “chop suey” translates more or less into “assorted mix,” and refers to a repertoire of dishes mostly developed in North America in the mid-20th century. A mix of ideas both East and West and, to my eyes, frozen in time.
8. Farm to Table (Laura Reiley, April 13, 2016, Tampa Bay Times)
This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.
Skeptical of the chalkboard menus touting local, organic ingredients in front of nearly every restaurant in Tampa, Laura Reiley stops at farms, contacts vendors, and “for fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples” in order to determine the extent to which restaurant owners lie about obtaining ingredients from sources close to home.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.