Friday, January 29, 2010

To Have or Not to Have

I've been thinking a lot lately about the food we crave from home and how even the simplest thing comes to represent something we'd die to have, something we can't live without. Maybe that's tacos for me, but truth be told I can make them pretty much anywhere we have lived, so I never really have to do without them. I might miss the convenience of my favorite taco shack back home, or even the perfect salsa verde, but I don't exactly suffer for lack of tacos.

The first time I lived abroad (I studied in Sevilla, Spain in 1997) the Internet was, at least for most people, some strange sci-fi sorta' thing that was only for those willing to wait around for dial-up instead of just grabbing the phone. I remember asking my mom to send me boxes of my favorite cereal or peanut butter that would arrive weeks later completely demolished and sometimes opened. When my husband and I were first married we lived in Japan and we would make a semi-regular, two hour train trip to Hiroshima where we would wind our way through the ginza to a tiny shop called, of all things, Peter Pan, to buy packs of Old El Paso Taco Seasoning (I know…but it's Japan) and peanut butter. Now, with Amazon and Target and any number of other online grocery outlets, I can have what I want within days.

There is an interesting emotional experience that happens through the process of "doing without" and even the process of "getting to have." I have noticed that doing without something I love both inspires me to find alternate ways to make our favorite foods from home (see my veggie burger post coming soon) and create new dishes (like one of our new favorites - spicy Mexican veggie bowl). I have also noticed that I see foods differently when I have to cut out something that I can't get here. This has happened with meat substitutes. As a (historically) vegetarian family, I had not realized how much I was relying on meat substitutes at home - veggie burgers, soyrizo (which I really, really miss), seitan, tofu, tempeh. Every time we needed a protein, I would just throw in one of the above. Despite years of being vegetarian, I had started to stick with the same veggies over and over again (mostly tomatoes, spinach, green beans and salad). Here, almost all of our meals are chocked full of veggies and I am relying on this, combined with super whole grains (my Amazon quinoa order will be on its way soon) and perhaps eggs, cheese or milk to provide a great source of protein and nutritional balance.

So, doing without has actually resulted in more opportunities to have the things we weren't having before. And yet, the pure emotion that comes with being surprised to find something we love from home, to taste a hint of a treasured food is a part of this process too. We have always been whole grain bread eaters, but most of the bread here is ultra processed. Unbleached and whole-wheat flours are unheard of. I spent the first month or so after our arrival painstakingly going from super market to super market looking for good flour, experimenting with the bleached stuff and calculating the astronomical shipping costs and storage options if I were to order 50 lb bags online. Finally, one day I found unbleached and whole-wheat flour (at Bravo, of course). I literally had to talk myself down. "Don't run…walk briskly to the front of the store and get a cart…take several bags, but not all of it…you don't want to look desperate." I thought I would cry.

And, I am regularly reminded that we are not alone in this process. I went back to the States for 72 hours in November and the morning I dropped the boys off at my friends house, her nanny handed me $20 and a photo of a product my friend was requesting I try to pick up at Central Market in Austin. Our nanny, Vilma, is Peruvian. The other night she was lamenting having used her last pack of her favorite Peruvian aji brought from her last trip home four months ago. Her face lit up in disbelief when I found it online and placed an order.

Bite by bite, meal by meal and day by day, we maintain this gastronomical (and economical) dance. What to buy? What not to buy? What to order online? What to completely scrap from our mental and physical craving list? And, right here is where I want to wrap-up with some nice Buddhist doctrine, but would surely be taking it out of context (like people always do with Shakespeare quotes, ugg) - so, maybe best just to say: Here's to enjoying your next meal and tasting it again, for the first time.

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