When we moved to Chicago from the UK last year, I joined a number of expat groups on social media hoping to connect with others who could provide tips and advice about our relocation. What I quickly noticed however, is that these groups were pretty focused on one thing: food. Day after day, the threads were packed with posts lamenting the loss of favourite British classics like Toad In The Hole and Shepherd's Pie, along with pictures of various attempts to recreate them or complaints about Americanized versions of them. Just this morning my feed has featured posts and pics of some pretty forlorn-looking hot cross buns, a transatlantic care package containing Pot Noodles, a full English (breakfast), and a plate of fish and chips (sans mushy peas).
It's true that over the last year, food has been a key feature in our cultural assimilation. It's also been a pretty good gauge of where we are emotionally - homesickness causes the munchies. On a bad day, there's just no substitute for a Curly Wurly with a Ribena chaser, and there are some problems that only Aunt Bessie or Mr Kipling can fix. According to The British Corner Shop - the online grocery store that exports UK classics to homesick Brits abroad - the most popular products to wing their way around the world include Heinz Baked Beans, Warburton's crumpets, Paxo stuffing and Bisto gravy granules. These are clearly the quintessential British ingredients that just cannot be replaced or replicated. My own orders usually occur when I'm feeling a bit low and include Jaffa Cakes, Pickled Onion flavoured Monster Munch and Cadbury's Flakes.
So what is it about food that can be such a deal-breaker for a homesick expat? It's true that, for us, food made everything feel strange and foreign when we first moved here. Vast supermarkets filled with unfamiliar ingredients and brands and so much choice left us giddy and confused - our familiar fruits and vegetables came disguised as egg plants, zucchinis, arugula, cilantro and pico de gallo. New cooking measures and methods like 'cups' and 'broiling' got us in a bit of a pickle. And once the initial thrill of an all-American breakfast of pancakes, bacon and syrup had worn off, I longed for a slice of Hovis and the snap crackle and pop of a bowl of Rice Crispies.
Perhaps the biggest food challenge when we moved was planning and cooking our evening meals. It quickly became apparent that man cannot live on meatloaf alone and we had to get our heads (and our budget) around our weekly menu. Back in the UK, both Husband and I worked full time. To combat arguments over what to have each night and to avoid binge-eating takeaways, we signed up to a meal-delivery service and this worked really well for us. Each day's meal came sorted into bags of fresh ingredients with simple recipe cards for us to follow. It meant that we finally broke free of our limited menu where we simply cycled through the same dozen or so meals. It also encouraged our two boys to cook and cut down on food waste. So when we moved, I did my research and found a similar service to suit our needs and budget. My rationale was that it allowed me to tightly monitor what I spent, learn about new ingredients, familiarise myself with different cuts of meat and try a range of different foods.
Our weekly menu from Home Chef offers a wide choice of meals which I chose ahead and usually we opt for at least one vegetarian option and one fish dish a week. Portions are generous and leftovers make great lunches. This week we've had Korean pork noodles, Mongolian beef and New-England style fish cakes which is a far cry from what we would have managed to create on our own! When we have visitors I now have the confidence to upscale or adapt some of our favourite dishes and I'm no longer in a spin every time I go to the supermarket.
Whilst we still miss our British favourites, there's a lot I love about American food and food culture. I love discovering new places to eat - recent finds have included a pre-theatre dinner at a great Middle Eastern place in the city called Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen and the incredible, newly-opened Montira Thai and Sushi that's right around the corner from our home.
Apart from the huge variety of food on offer, I also love that portion sizes in restaurants are generally great value and allow for leftovers and there's no shame in boxing up what you can't manage for you to enjoy the next day. Our record has to be the chocolate brownie we ordered from a local restaurant that provided dessert for all three of us for the next two days! I suppose my only food gripe is with US attempts at 'British Classics'. A recent visit to one branch of Brit-branded eatery left me pretty disappointed - adding the word 'London' to a dish does not make it British!
There are still days when only a hot, buttered crumpet and a cup of PG will do, but as our tastes get more adventurous and as we find our own favourite American classics, food has become less of a trigger for homesickness and much more of a way to make friends, have fun and enjoy family time together, and that's glorious.