I’M AT MY local Walmart in suburban Long Island, New York, picking up a couple of items for an overnight chicken marinade. The dairy fridge has less diversity than the ones in Arkansas, so I ask a nearby manager-type whether I might have missed something.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but where do y’all keep buttermilk?”
Her brow furrows.
I am confronted with an embarrassing realization: Definitionally, I don’t really know what buttermilk is, either.
“It’s … I dunno, like regular milk, but thicker? A little like yogurt, but you pour it out of a carton?”
The manager gives me a skeptical look, as if I had reported that eggs in the next aisle had begun to hatch. She keeps her eyes on me and calls into her walkie-talkie.
“Michael, we got any buttermilk?”
A curt, muffled voice quickly responds. “What’s buttahmilk?”
I’m already slinking away. “OK, thank you.”
The first time I tried living outside the comforts of the South, it was for law school. St. Louis was a mere five hours to Little Rock’s north—hardly enough distance to portend culture shock. And yet. During orientation, I joined about a dozen of my new classmates—Californians; Wisconsinites; Illini; Ohioans; etc.—at a Mexican restaurant near campus. Already needing a taste of home, and wanting to make a gesture of community, I ordered two cheese dips for the table. The waiter squinted.
Sensing a language barrier, I elaborated: “Queso? Chili con queso?”
The waiter blushed and glanced around for reinforcements. I was getting sheepish, too.
“Like, melted cheese and peppers, for dipping?” I pantomimed.
He feigned confidence with a nod and scribbled something down. When he returned, it was with a plate of sliced, stewed bell peppers, with half-melted shredded cheese on top. I thanked him warmly for the effort, careful to disguise my existential panic. Where was I? And here’s the crazier thing: Not one single person at my table of 12 understood what I had tried to order, either.
They had never heard of the dish.
I’ve found similar indignities elsewhere on the island. A Mexican restaurant that brought out bread instead of chips and salsa. A “barbecue” joint that promised a pulled-pork sandwich but served me a sloppy Joe.
I have since found a few faithful versions of my childhood favorites. In nearby Brooklyn, for example, Southern expats have opened restaurants like Pies ’n’ Thighs and Sweet Chick, which serve excellent fried chicken. The menu at a trendy Southern-inspired bar in Manhattan, called Porchlight, features “Arkansas Cheese Dip”—a respectably executed imitation.
But it all comes at a price. Those fried-chicken meals cost about as much as a white-tablecloth steak dinner in Little Rock. A side of Porchlight’s hushpuppies aren’t complimentary; they’re 10 bucks. A recent mediocre chicken-fried steak was $25. A plate of enchiladas costs at least twice as much as in Fayetteville.
MY SOLUTION for this conundrum has been to learn to cook my own Southern food. I started with a deep fryer that my brother, knowing my affinity for carnival cuisine, gave me for Christmas. There’s a generous margin for error in frying, compared to something like baking. You generally know the item is ready when the outside turns a familiar golden brown. The flavorful, oil-crisped coating disguises all manner of deficiencies. And if it’s a disaster, at least you know it pretty quickly. Now my hushpuppies set me back about a dollar instead of 10—and are better besides—and I can stretch yesterday’s grits or mac and cheese by frying them into crunchy fritters.
Gaining confidence, I moved on to recreating my favorite family meals. I followed dutifully the letter of hand-scripted recipe cards: my grandfather’s oven-baked brisket; Grannie’s cornbread; Mom’s chili. They were never perfect copies, but they felt authentic. I felt authentic, too. As I gained confidence, I started incorporating my own spins. Jalapeño in the cream gravy. Crumbles of Bleu in the mac and cheese. Dr. Pepper in the braise.
To encourage my progress, Mom bequeathed me a couple of her mother’s cast-iron skillets. The thing about cast iron is that it’s semiporous. When hot, those pores expand to soak up a little of whatever they’re cooking. (That’s why you generally don’t wash them with soap—you may later taste it). In this way, Grannie’s pans are seasoned with the ghosts of all the meals she ever made in them. I like to imagine those spirits guiding me when I’m at the stove.
Nobody is tossing me a James Beard medal anytime soon. Regional obstacles remain: I can’t find okra anywhere, for example. And there are still a couple of dishes that elude me—the shell of my fried pies is either too fluffy or too brittle. But overall, I’ve become competent in my kitchen. When I’m homesick or sad or nostalgic, I can create my own comfort.
The French have a culinary word, terroir, that is most commonly translated as “taste of place.” It reflects the biochemical reality that foods are imbued with the flavors of their cradle. Fruits vary greatly based on the soil in which they were grown, and the quality of a meat is largely a function of the quality of water, air and grasses where the animal lived.
But terroir also implies that foods have a certain spiritual connection to their geography. Through some magic akin to quantum entanglement, food and place remain intertwined across time and distance. Beans baked my mother’s way can transport me to my childhood house. Learning to craft a chocolate pie zips my consciousness to the Thanksgiving table where it always sits. When I make Arkansas-style cheese dip, in some sense, I am there. It makes me appreciate more deeply my roots, even while becoming less tethered by them.
We must all learn to make a home, wherever life has brought us, but we don’t start from scratch with every transplantation. We carry our old homes around inside of us. They can be coaxed out, and cultivated. We are each like that cast-iron skillet; for better or worse, we retain little traces of all our old ghosts. We all have our own taste of place.
Nick Rogers is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Stony Brook University, where he teaches Food & Society. He is the founder of the World Cheese Dip Championship and has opined for Atlanta Public Radio and The New York Times. He returns home to Arkansas at every reasonable opportunity.