Hungry for Home: Expats go to many lengths to taste hometown favorites

Science tells us that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, but taste can’t be far behind. Many of us are easily able to recall nuances of flavor and texture, even from years ago. For those of us no longer residing where we grew up, indulging in our longing for tastes from years gone by requires some detective work.

I’m from Nebraska, and if I’m home in the summer months, I have to have fresh Nebraska sweet corn, preferably purchased out of the back of some farmer’s pickup parked out on the side of Cornhusker Highway. There’s nothing like it. In pre-9/11 days, I’d load up a Styrofoam cooler and carry a few dozen ears onto a flight back to St. Louis.

My husband, who grew up in Colorado, longs for a spicy Mexican green chile stew of pork, jalapeños and tomatillos. Whenever he’s home, it’s like he has a big green monkey on his back. He scours every Mexican restaurant in search of a fix. He can’t be bothered with shipping any back East; he just wants me to recreate the stew when we’re home. I consider myself a fairly decent cook, but try as I might, in almost 11 years of marriage, I’ve never been able to even come close to getting it right, and all he can tell me is, “That’s not it.”

Pete Trapani grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island, which afforded him a range of culinary treats from pizza (“Sicilian, please, not ‘regular’”) to ethnic street vendors to fruit stands.

“I miss having easy access to different ethnic specialties,” he said, explaining that in his neighborhood, “one corner had Italian, one had Jewish, one had Chinese, all within walking distance.”

One culinary experience that he revisits religiously upon any return home involves a visit to a New York deli. “It’s like a smorgasbord of foods, from breakfast to dinner. I like a turkey hero with mayo, salt and pepper, heavy on the mayo,” he said with more than just a trace of a New York accent. “And you have to say it that way, too. You have to know what you’re doing.” He cited fresh chewy bagels, fried egg sandwiches and long lines of prepared salads as some of his favorite deli items. “Oh,” he yelped, “I almost forgot knishes, how could I forget potato knishes with a little bit of mustard?”

While the tastes of New York remain steadfast in Trapani’s memory, he said he believes it’s more than just the food: “It’s the mentality, the lingo, it’s all unique to New York.”

He revels in the entire sensory experience. Trapani’s cousin owns a pastry shop in the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn. “We like to go to my cousin Angelo’s shop, have some pastry, a little espresso, some good conversation. Ah, it’s heaven,” he sighed, adding that he has gone so far as to have his cousin ship specially prepared pastry out here to the wilds of Missouri. “It tastes just as good here.”

It’s not only people on the East Coast who go to great lengths to recapture their hometown food experience. A recently relocated left coaster, Bob Smith, also has gone to some trouble to keep his culinary memories burning. “Man, I am salivating just thinking about this,” he said, speaking not of any fussy outpost of nouvelle California cuisine but of El Taquería in Healdsburg, Calif., home of the Burrito Deluxe El Pastor. He described the burrito of his dreams: “It’s big and it has a lot of pork, rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream and tons of cilantro. I don’t know what else it is. It’s just good.”

Contrary to Trapani’s experience, Smith said El Taquería’s ambiance has nothing to do with his culinary memories. “This place has zero atmosphere. You just line up and order. People are just there for the food. I’m almost embarrassed,” he admitted, “but when I go back home, I buy five, freeze them solid, pack them on ice then bring them home on the plane.”

Expatriate St. Louisans also have their share of hometown favorites. Although many former residents of the Gateway City would probably mention the usual suspects of concretes from Ted Drewes and Imo’s Pizza as items that get their culinary juices flowing, a few have more esoteric choices.

Ann Whitney, formerly of St. Louis, now calls North Potomac, Md., home. She admitted spending a bit of time recently Googling Velvet Freeze ice cream. Not just any Velvet Freeze flavor; she’s been particularly craving Swiss chocolate chip. “I’ve never found it anywhere else, and I always look for it in stores.” Not being from St. Louis myself, I had to have her explain it to me. “There’s nothing else like it. The tiny pieces of chocolate – Swiss chocolate – gave it kind of a bitter taste.” Her craving is also bound up in experience. “My family would walk to the old store on Hampton and Arsenal. It was always a lot of fun.”

She also pines for a certain kind of slaw, made only at the fish fries at St. Aloysius Gonzaga in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “A lady named Mrs. Von Minden made this slaw, and it was phenomenal,” she raved. “I have tried and tried to replicate it over the years, but no one had a written recipe. She just threw things in. Do you think any of her family is still out there?” she asked wistfully. “I would love to get that recipe.”

It seems that few hometown favorites are drawn from the ranks of haute cuisine, and those of Candace Thompson, now of Jacksonville, Fla., are no different. “It’s got to be wings from Culpeppers,” she said. Of her new digs, she remarked, “No one around here knows how to make good chicken wings. They’re always too greasy or too hot. Culpeppers’ are just right.” In fact, before she agreed to the interview, she tried some good-natured extortion. “Does this mean I can get a case of wings for my cooperation?”

Thompson lived here for a number of years before moving south and comes back for routine visits. “Everyone knows if Candace is in town, we’re going to head to Culpeppers. I’m issuing an open call to the people of St. Louis. If anyone is willing to ship me wings, I’m ready,” laughed Thompson.

As for myself, I’m still on the green chile trek and ready to issue my own open call. Will someone help me out with an authentic Colorado green chile stew recipe? Please?