This space is dedicated to stories about food and culture from the diaspora. Which diaspora in in particular? Any of them. I want to hear about how anyone living away from their culture of origin adapts and expands the food they eat. But as the daughter of a Spanish father and Appalachian mother, I do have a special interest in stories from the Spanish diaspora and transplanted Southerners.
I grew up in the US Midwest of the late 60s and early 70s, and the food culture around me was the sort of mid-20th Century American cuisine that seems so hilarious now. Fruit gelatine studded with chopped vegetables and served on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of mayonnaise was an acceptable “salad.” Pizza came in a box containing a tube of pre-made dough, one little can of barely seasoned tomato sauce and another of processed “parmesan” cheese to sprinkle on top.
You could make an entire dinner with meat, vegetables, gravy and dessert by bunging a covered foil tray into the oven. No one blinked at the idea of serving children “orange juice” made of rehydrated crystals consisting mainly of sugar. Everyone thought that if you didn’t consume red meat at least once – if not twice – a day, you’d shrivel to nothing and blow away in a strong breeze.
But while my parents embraced the convenience of Hamburger Helper and frozen pot pies, they believed in maintaining a home where good food and cooking were important. My father came from the city of Seville in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía. Like any good Spaniard, he considered having the highest quality, freshest ingredients possible to be the minimum acceptable level for his meals.
My mother, originally from West Virginia, had grown up with the food traditions of the South, which also prized fresh, tasty ingredients. She also fell in love with the cuisine of my father’s homeland, and might serve an arroz con pollo or pot of lentils with chorizo as easily as she’d make us fried chicken or beans with cornbread.
My parents also had a keen curiosity about food, and part of every family vacation was the search for new and different foods to try. During our frequent trips to Miami, we always had Cuban black beans and rice served with fried plantains. In Montreal, we ate fancy-schmancy French haute cuisine and tried curries at an Indian restaurant. Travelling through Maine, we stopped off at the local lobster festival. While in Los Angeles, we spotted a Japanese steakhouse and had our first experience of teppanyaki.
The small Ohio city we lived in had a number of expat communities that was surprisingly large. Perhaps because my father was a doctor – a profession whose members seem to seek work overseas in large numbers – my parents’ friends came from around the globe. And they were all eager to share the foods of their homelands with each other. As a child, I tried dishes from Argentina, Germany, India, Hungary, Mexico, Greece, Egypt, Cuba, Austria, and Viet Nam. My mother begged the recipes for her favourites and incorporated them into our family meals.
This early exposure to so many cuisines and cultures sowed the seeds of what would be a lifelong obsession with not only trying new foods, but also learning the stories and traditions behind them. My adult life, lived mostly in the Catalan and Welsh capitals of Barcelona and Cardiff, have allowed me to learn even more food cultures while making me part of the diaspora.
I too work to recreate my favourite foods in a foreign land, researching how to find hard-to-get ingredients or how to adapt when they can’t be found. I know the profound sense of satisfaction when a dish comes out just right, and the near sense of loss when local conditions mean it will never taste exactly right.
With this blog, I hope to bring together stories about how those of us living Away both preserve our pasts and move forward through the recipes we cook. Through these, I believe we can learn more about how we define ourselves and what it means to be Home.