Thursday, April 17, 2008

Home Food

Where I’ve Come From, Where I’m Going

Note: This post is only marginally related to food.

I first left home and headed to college a few months’ shy of my 17th birthday. That was nearly 12 years ago. I’ve moved around a lot ever since.

I didn’t just move a lot -- I uprooted. I was young and angry, sometimes rightfully so, even in hindsight. I shunned my past, my Long Island heritage, and my family's home. Picking up and leaving the state of New York was my way of cutting all ties. I needed to go somewhere very different, and ended up at a little college in North Carolina. That didn’t last more than a few months. I couldn’t pay the tuition, despite two small scholarships and some financial aid, and was asked to leave. I drove back to suburban New York, defeated, jaded, with a heavy heart and my tail between my legs. Until I could transfer to another school in the fall, I moved back home.

I didn’t actually mind the town I grew up in, but I had a Holden Caufield attitude toward suburban life in general. I looked down on the people (“phonies”) who were so attached to that lifestyle and all the things that came with it: mega stores, chain restaurants, drive-thrus, having a bigger and better SUV/lawn/bar mitzvah/set of Christmas light than your neighbors. To this day, I’m not a suburban person (I cringe at the thought of having to own a car), but I’m well-rounded enough now to appreciate some of the things nicer aspects of my hometown -- like the beaches, good public schools, and having a mailbox where you can actually send outgoing mail -- and don’t automatically discount people anymore for choosing to live there.

No Place Home
When I left Long Island, I wasn’t looking for a new place to call “home.” I just wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t there. So I floated. I never lived at any one address for more than 12 months, until 2004, when Boyfriend and I moved into an apartment in the Sunset district of San Francisco. We lived there for two and half years. It was tremendously hard to leave that place.

As much as I’ve prided myself on being a traveler, I’ve found that in the past year or two I’ve begun to differentiate between experiencing the world and not having a “home.”

I was talking to a girl at a party the other night about this very thing. I could tell she didn’t understand where I was coming from. She’s a student studying in a foreign country and had recently come back from a two-week trip to Eastern Europe. My guess is she’s very wrapped up in living and traveling abroad. I think she’s a few years younger than I am. At one point, she tried to summarize what I was saying: “It’s like you need to have a base.”

I didn’t correct her, but that statement was far from what I was trying to get at. Her version seemed to imply that you can travel and live different places, but you need to have one place that is “home,” where you can always go back, where you keep your stuff. The difference for me is that I don’t want to feel like I can go back at any time -- I want to be there. I want to live in my home.

When Food Trumps ‘Home’
Of all the places I’ve lived as an adult, Northern California is where I spent the longest continuous stretch. California was where I really acquired an advanced appreciation for food and cooking. (Lucky me, too. The state matches France and Italy for its total awareness of food, from production to preparation to consumption.)

Because food plays such a central role in my life, it’s sad that I know California is not where I want to make my home. I love Northern California. I love that the 100-mile radius around any single point in the state supports such an array of climates that there is a wide variety of agriculture year-round. Good wines are easy to come by and are as bountiful as the basic wine education you can absorb just by talking to the people who work at the region’s vineyards and wine bars.

California helped shape me into the person I am today, and a great deal of my experience living there is closely associated with food. Food is vital to our being in ways that are more than just survival-based. We celebrate with it. We turn to it for comfort, or turn it down in an act of self-denial in times of distress. The taste and smell of different foods invoke memories that we can’t always quite grasp. Other times, those same senses force us to relive an exact moment in history, for better or worse.

Ultimately, though, what I learned and the experiences I had in California, and who I became as a result, weren’t fully connected to the idea of “home.”

The most important factor that was always missing was closeness with my family, both geographic and emotional. It’s painful to think back on being 16 years old and leaving, needing to shun suburbia and sever so many ties, which I did intentionally. I deliberately chose to move to a place that wasn’t easy to visit, and long-distance phone calls were not something my family could easily afford. Whether I would have a relationship with my family was suddenly in my control, and at the time, I needed it to be. I needed a good amount of distance and isolation to let some emotional wounds heal. It’s funny; it’s more difficult now to think about that overwhelming desire to be cutoff from my past than to think about what caused the wounds in the first place.

When Home Trumps Food
All those things are different now. In the coming weeks, I’ll be moving to the New York area, where I plan to see my immediate family a lot more often. I already have plans to hop on a 45-minute flight up to Buffalo to visit my older sister during Memorial Day weekend and meet her fiancĂ©’s family at a barbecue. I’m looking forward to Sunday dinners with my mom, who lives on Long Island and loves to grill when the weather is warm. I’m looking forward having some girl time with my youngest sister on “free topping Fridays” at one of the local frozen yogurt shops that she likes. Another of my sisters lives in the dorms of a university in Manhattan; while I was in the area around Christmas, I made tzaziki one day and called her up to say, “I made too much Greek yogurt sauce. I’m gonna pop by and bring you some.” It was an inconsequential moment, but it’s the kind of thing I genuinely look forward to doing more often once I’m there.

It’s these small acts with the people I care about most that’s more important than the food that goes with them.

Where I’ve Lived

1996-1997 North Carolina
1997 Long Island
1997-2000 Buffalo, NY
2000 London
2000-2001 Buffalo, NY
2001-2002 Long Island
2002-2002 Oakland, Calif.
2002-2003 San Mateo, Calif.
2003-2007 San Francisco
2007 Queens, NY
2007-2008 London

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