Exploring homesickness through condiments

Something I’ve realized lately is just how many condiments I owned before moving to Ohio. Every night when I reach into the fridge, searching for some of Ben’s tamari or that bottle of Tapatio or that jar of Trader Joe’s harissa I bought on a trip to Wisconsin, I’m reminded that I left everything in a refrigerator in Kansas. Sometimes I just want to slam the fridge closed and open it again, hoping I’ll inspire some sort of food fantasy reverse Wizard of Oz situation and all my beloved jars will appear.

Instead, I’ve been shopping. One of my first priorities after moving was to find and replace all of those condiments, and in doing so I’ve realized how much condiments serve as totems of familiarity and reminders of home for me. Eating a breakfast sandwich at a local diner, the Proud Rooster, was the inspiration; a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot was sitting on the table, and I snapped a picture to send to my dad with the caption “they have it here too!” His response: “Good. I put that shit on everything.”

There’s something so comforting in finding a place or a person that shares a love of Frank’s. It’s different than sharing a favourite dish; condiments speak to a more personal level of attachment. They add flavor in a way that an individual is in control of, even if she wasn’t the cook of the meal. There’s a level of “doctoring-up” at play that ties the personal to the historical. While Frank’s is one of a million hot sauces (and only one of the many I keep in stock), I still associate it with my family, like some sort of family “secret” ingredient. In the same way that my dad’s joke is a long-running response to any Frank’s sighting, just having a bottle of Frank’s somehow makes me feel closer to those I’ve left.

Perhaps that’s why the loss of all my fridge condiments hit me so hard, harder than anything else about moving so far. They were a collection, a jumble of jars and containers that spoke not only to my familial ties, but to my explorations as well. I certainly didn’t grow up with harissa, or tapatio, or Maille dijon mustard. Those were additions I’d made, ones that somehow bolstered my identity as a culinary experimenter. In seeking out new flavors, I’d pushed beyond the boundaries of my Midwest upbringing to discover a side of myself that I’m just now beginning to understand—a side that is wholly fascinated with how food speaks to both personal and national cultural identity.

So I’d found those condiments, and in a hokey way some idea of who I want to be (#phdlife), only to lose them again in a 14-hour move. But even after losing them, it takes just one trip to Jungle Jim’s to replace them all. Perhaps that’s what’s so startling to me about condiments in general—they’re so important, yet so easily replaceable.

The simplest way to feel just a little bit closer to home.