New Zealand is my new home. I felt at home here almost from the start. Kiwis get my sense of humor in ways that my fellow Americans never did. Simon and I can live 20 minutes from the center of the nation’s capital and keep pigs, alpacas, and (coming soon), chickens. Work-life balance is a real thing here, not just an aspiration. It is possible to drive from our home in the hills to the beach in 20 minutes or less. Almost nobody here goes back to work on January 2nd. New Zealand is closed in January. The January “blahs” that used to knock me sideways every year just aren’t a thing.
There has been much to learn: driving on the “wrong” side; the metric system; Kiwi English; spelling; that horizontal rain makes umbrellas pretty much pointless; that July isn’t summer, and January isn’t winter; that there are 18 hours of daylight on Christmas and 8 hours of daylight on the 4th of July; the rules of cricket; that the number 10 is pronounced “tin” while 7 is pronounced “seevin.” Footy games are “matches”, the field is the “pitch”, and it takes rugby players roughly 80 minutes to play an 80-minute match. And there are no TV time-outs, special teams, shoulder pads or helmets. So you’d better have your beer and chips ready before play starts.
New Zealand is my home. For me, though, the notion of home is bit slippery. You see, I have many “homes” in places where I’ve never actually lived. In addition to my actual homes (Virginia, Georgia and Wisconsin, New Zealand), I get homesick for, inter alia: New Orleans, Edinburgh, Paris, the Masai Mara, and Antarctica. In pondering how this is possible, I’ve come to understand for me, “home” is about memorable experiences and the people with whom I shared them.
And I remember those experiences in terms of food.
I discovered my love for jazz and zydeco over coffee and biegnets with my parents at the Café du Monde. My friend Anita and I kicked off a long-weekend sharing our love of art with glasses of red wine and the best omelets ever for breakfast (well, an early lunch) at a sidewalk café on the Rive Gauche after an all-night flight to Paris. My two chosen sisters – Susan and Elizabeth – and I ate great piles of mussels and chips (but not haggis) after exploring ruined castles in Scotland, and drank gallons of vino verde in the hot, dusty Alentejo in Portugal. I ate delicious grilled langoustines in Bali while my venerable Elder Sister, Katy, fed her grilled fish to the street cats. Simon and I drank gorgeous Argentine and Chilean wines while watching the penguins and icebergs in Antarctica. And I reveled in quaffing Tusker beers with my fellow campers after a hard day tracking wildlife with my intrepid Masai guide, Josh, at Freeman Safaris in Kenya.
In fact, sharing memorable meals is, for me, the way I end up expanding my chosen family. Conversations and experiences can create acquaintances, but for me, breaking bread creates family. And family is home.
Taste is my most evocative sense. Music is a distant second. Christmas isn’t Christmas until I’ve had one of Auntie Janice’s nutmeg logs and a slice of my mother’s stöllen. Passion fruit (a key ingredient in New Orleans’ famous hurricane cocktail and also popular in New Zealand) makes me hear Dixieland jazz and zydeco. My cheese and nut loaf evokes Thanksgiving dinner with Pete, Anita, Mike and Mary Beth, even in New Zealand in July. Peaches take me take me back to the battered old formica kitchen table at my grandparents’ farm where Tanta comforted me with peach küchen after a run-in with the wasps in the outdoor privvy. Every time I eat oatmeal, I hear Grandpa Saltenberger saying: “If you don’t eat your oatmeal, you won’t grow hair on your chest.” Somehow, that arugment worked for him: I ate the oatmeal. It never occurred to me, at 7, that I might not want hair on my chest.
Not all the memories are happy. I was eating baklava the moment my appendix ruptured, and I still can’t face the stuff. When I was about 6, I ate whipped cream until I was sick (they warned me), and it still gives me pause. At about the same age, I went to the fridge and took a big slug out of what I thought was ice water. It was martinis. Please, never order me a martini! And tuna casserole will forever take me back to the hours and days I spent by my father’s bedside when he was dying in hospice.
With absolutely no disrespect to my loving and all-around-wonderful mother, my Dad was (and remains, eight years after his death) the center of my universe. He was a World War II veteran, a brilliant scholar, and a venerated teacher. But in his heart of hearts, he was a farmer. Not a gardener – he had no truck with roses or posies. That was my mother’s realm. He grew food. Every summer we drowned in bell peppers (capiscums), green beans, snap peas, shelly beans, okra, eggplants, radishes, spinach, and lettuces. He even grew summer squash (courgettes) – crooknecks and zucchini – even though he hated it, because he knew I loved it. Half of the back yard was covered in raspberries – because Mom loved them. His fig tree was legendary – it was the fig tree equivalent of the loaves and fishes. It fed the ten thousand hungry southerners with figs. And with my mom’s famous fig pizzas. Yum.
But what I most associate with my father and, hence, with love and family, is tomatoes: his huge, ugly, sweet, juicy heirloom tomatoes. When I moved away from home, he would pick them green, wrap them in newspaper, and ship them to me. One bite of a vine-ripened tomato, warm from the sun, transports me right back to summertime Saturday afternoons, when we three sat down with a couple of big, fat tomatoes, a jar of mayo, salt, pepper, and a loaf of squishy white bread – no lettuce, no bacon – and ate tomato sandwich after tomato sandwich, washed down with unsweetened grape Kool-Aid. I’m sure, when I die, my last thought of my father will be those tomato sandwiches.
I only know how to tell my story, and my family’s story, through food. Family, love, life, and home are all embodied, for me, in food: in the making of it and the sharing of it. In this blog, I will share what I have learned about living and cooking as a vegetarian, and living and cooking as a vegetarian in New Zealand. I will also share my stories: the ones I remember from my past homes and the ones I am making here in my new home. Some are funny, others are sad. All are, for me, full of the kind of meaning that makes ordinary food a meal, makes meals into memories, and makes memories into home.