Thursday, February 26, 2009

Comfort food

Many years ago, when I thought San Francisco, California was a long way from home, and also that it was a good idea to pierce my own nose with a needle, I stayed at the Marina District flat of my a high school friend’s quite-a-bit-older sister. Looking back I realize she must have been around thirty, but her Irish photographer husband and her dogged insistence that we eat sushi (circa 1990) made her seem far more worldly than I would have dreamed of becoming at that age.

At the time, my friend’s sister was a teacher, and was soon to move to Japan with her photographer huband and their new baby for a teaching gig (the sister, not the baby). I asked her what she thought she’d have trouble adjusting to, and she paused and said that she thought of how strange it was that her daughter’s comfort foods wouldn’t be the same as her own. The friend’s sister (FS) had spent the first few years of her life in China, and grown up in a Chinese-speaking (and mostly eating) household in Brooklyn, which she believed molded her palate. In Japan her daughter would grow up with miso soup for breakfast and would probably later miss the tang of an umeboshi pickled plum when she moved away.

The topic of comfort food looms large among expats. Here in Santiago it is not unusual to get an email indicating where a certain food oddity (such as shredded wheat cereal) may be located. Answer: nowhere. After my pecans were seized, I went from place to place looking for replacement pecans, including a place where I’d remembered having seen them a couple of years earlier. No pecans, they said. Not for the last couple of years.

Pecans and shredded wheat aside, I have friends who call each other if they find cheddar cheese like we know it, or some kind of veggie meat subtitute like the Argentine “milanesa de soya” which is the tofu of chicken-fried steak, if you will. At the beginning the cravings hit you hard, and you simply must find a cheezit or a graham cracker or you will die a slow death. Please insert violins. The more addicted to processed food you were when you got here, the worse it is.

I’ve come almost completely to terms with wishing for certain food items. Most things (aside from salty carby snacks that are not potato chips) that I would want are available, or I can make them myself. Store-bought hummus is unknown, and I have to import the right kind of chickpeas (canned, of course) to make my own, but you can get it in the occasional restaurant. I make my own natural peanut butter, and also my own paneer. So in short, for most things I’ve developed a work-around.

Back to the states. Every now and then, I go home, where I eat bagels and feta cheese (but not together) and kalamata olives and broccoli in garlic sauce and sometimes even Breyers’ mint chocolate chip ice cream. But after a while I start to get that cooking itch, and want to whip something up for my family.

The last time this happened, I was on Long Island, visiting my family and we went out in search of supplies, because I was going to make garlic bread. Bread? How could it be so hard to find bread? Wherever we went, it was too hard, too soft. In a word, it was aƱejo (old). It was not the marraqueta, the split-in-four fresh-from-the-oven French bread we get here in Chile, which would have been perfect. I made the garlic bread, but it came out just okay. And I was so disappointed.

Before I came to Chile a friend’s coworker who’d lived here talked about buying bread so fresh and warm you had to put it in a paper, not plastic bag. She waxed on and on about the fresh bread, about buying extra so you could nibble a piece on the way home and still have enough when you got there. Got it. The bread? It’s good. But I didn’t know it would be so good that I’d miss it when I wasn’t here.

So there’s still hope for my friend’s child, who must be (gasp) a teenager these days. She may have grown up on mochi and those fish-shaped waffle-like sweets filled with red bean paste, but, having moved back to the United States by now (I checked), I’m sure she can really appreciate a good Mission-style burrito.

Mmmm, burrito.

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