Why My Homecoming is Always a Culinary One

The word nostalgia comes from the ancient Greek term nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, meaning “pain.” It is, literally, the pain of wanting to go home, devised as a term in the 16th Century to describe the acute homesickness of soldiers serving abroad. Today, we regularly misuse the term, describing anything that reminds us of childhood, homeliness, or a bygone era, as “nostalgic.” Strangely, the term isn’t often used to describe food or our longing for the comfort it can bring.

The Emotional Ties of Home Cooking

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That’s not to say that there aren’t certain places who trade on the “home cooking” idea. In Britain, “home-cooked food” is a by-word in pubs up and down the country – a marker that what you’re going to eat will be hearty, wholesome and served in unnervingly large portions. UK TV personality, restaurateur and former costermonger Gregg Wallace recently opened a restaurant, Gregg’s Table, which is focused on the “retro” 1970s food his mother used to make. Gregg’s Table may have been an awful idea (Spam fritters, anyone?), but, nevertheless, it shows that there is an appetite to consume home-cooked food, even when eating out.

The food at Gregg’s Table wasn’t labeled ‘nostalgic’ (instead they went for the ever-so trendy “retro” vibe), and it may not have survived for very long, but it’s clear that food can be a cure for the sort of homesickness it is possible to feel when one is away from home for a long time. In fact, sometimes familiar food is the only cure to such homesickness. There’s a reason that parents send their kids to university with foil-wrapped, frozen batch-cooked meals – nothing compares to mum’s Shepherd’s Pie or Spaghetti Bolognese.

It’s also probably the reason that billions of people put themselves through similar, usually traumatizing culinary torture each year – namely, eating turkey during the holidays. Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason we only really eat turkey once a year – it’s bloody horrible. Dry, tasteless and generally ludicrously expensive due to its low annual, high-peak demand, we still consume these birds by the billion each and every year. The real reason for this is that it perpetuates a myth of homeliness that we inherit from our parents in childhood who, in turn, inherited it from their parents. Our parents’ parents (that is to say, our grandparents) didn’t inherit it from anyone. Rather, after the withdrawal of post-WWII austerity, families were looking for an impressive Christmas roast to feed the family that was still relatively inexpensive. And so along came the turkey to ruin my Christmas for the past 20 years!

A Longing for Familiarity

In the 1500s, the symptoms of nostalgia were characterized by delusional fantasies about being home, a state of mind that left no room for thought about current surroundings. On a recent trip to China, it was easy to identify with this feeling of total cultural and sensory disorientation, at least some of which was down to the food. In many cultures, food retains a ritual significance that is often lost in Western society outside of Masonic halls and Rotary Club lunches. China is no different, and the elaborate theatre played out at every meal is part of the charm of the place. But after the third evening of disappointingly similar, protein-heavy, carbohydrate-light banquets, one is often left just craving a cheeseburger. Or a steak. Or a good pie.

It leads to one feeling very left-behind, unrooted, and very much longing for home. It’s almost certainly the reason that you’ll find a Brit in every Irish pub from New York to New Delhi; and why there’s always an American ordering a Sam Adams Boston Lager in Mayfair’s Coach and Horses. Historically, there’s a reason why immigrant communities bring their home cuisine to an area – think of London’s Brick Lane or North London’s kosher restaurants – and why there have always been appeals to send soldiers serving abroad food from their home countries.

A Sensory Experience

Food and drink do something special. They provide sensory experiences which are deeply rooted in the now, the moment of consumption, but also have the ability to teleport us to another place or time and to remind us of experiences shared. However passionate you are about food, about new experiences, and about fully immersing yourself in a new culture, there will come a time when what you really crave is something that reminds you of home. For me, in China, it was a Starbucks – somewhere I never visit when at home. But the sight of those green-and-white paper cups, the reassuringly expensive prices for pretty average coffee, and the cloying, artificial Cinnamon Swirl I crammed into my face in a moment of deep cultural disorientation, took me home in a way that very little else could ever manage.

One of the first literary uses of the ancient Greek word ‘nostalgia’ comes from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. The eponymous hero, the mythic Odysseus, spends his twenty-four year exile in search of his nostos, his homecoming. In the text, Homer gives the impression that what Odysseus longs for is his family – his wife, and his infant son. But I like to think that Homer got it wrong, and what Odysseus truly longed for was something almost simpler – a good, home-cooked meal.