Where is home? Is it where you grew up? Where you have a house? Where you yearn to live? Where your heart lies? What about people like me, who call more than one place home? In today’s mobile world, finding home can be a challenge.
My experiences shuttling between two countries draw me to stories by others who struggle to make sense of cross-continental lives. Whether it’s immigrants trying to fit into the US or Americans returning to an overseas’ motherland, I’m fascinated by how people search for, and find, home.
Luisa Weiss, author of The Wednesday Chef, just released a quick-reading, entertaining memoir about her struggle to find a place in the world: My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story, with Recipes (Viking 2012). Luisa was born in Berlin to an American father and Italian mother. When her parents divorced, Luisa jockeyed between her dad’s home in the US, her mother’s family home in Italy, and her mom’s home in Berlin. After college, she moved to Paris for a year, worked in New York publishing and, finally, moved back to Berlin for love.
“When you grow up all mishmashed like I did, with an American passport and Italian citizenship and a birth certificate issued in West Berlin, it might take you a little longer than usual to figure out your place in the world. You’re this strange little hybrid of a person, easily adaptable, fluent in many languages, and outsider everywhere. … [Y]ou have to come up with a straightforward answer when people ask you where you’re from. You find yourself taking a deep breath and sizing up your questioner. How much do they need to know? How much time do they have? Are they going to be bored by the length of your story or lean in for more? Because there is never one straightforward answer.”
“Then you have to figure out where home is exactly. … Since you’re not exactly sure, you struggle with alienation, with commitment issues, and with a constant sense of isolation. We mishmashy folk can’t pinpoint exactly where home is or even what it is, yet we’re constantly longing for it. It’s quite a pickle, to say the least.”
Luisa captures the frustration moving between cultures can bring. In her chapter on searching for bitter greens, produce not popular in Berlin, Luisa unflinchingly examines why not being able to find greens disrupts her equilibrium:
“[T]he thing is, I had taken those greens for granted in New York and now I missed them terribly. What’s worse, missing them made me a little resentful. … I resented vendors at the city’s greenmarkets for not knowing what the vegetables were when I asked them if they ever sold them. I resented my friends who looked at me quizzically when I complained about this problem, and the garden show in the south of Berlin that had gorgeous lacinato kale growing as part of a landscape display. … I even resented the regional farmers who insisted on planting nothing but curly kale, which is scientifically proven to be the world’s least delicious variety of kale.”
“But most of all I resented myself for getting hung up on something as superficial and silly as bitter greens. I knew deep down that the bitter greens weren’t really what was bugging me … I knew, in a way, that it was a relief to have found something tangible to be frustrated at. The lack of bitter greens was an easy target, easier than frustration with my daily life.”
Food and cooking are Luisa’s keys to feeling less alone, no matter where she lives: “Distance means nothing when your kitchen smells like home.” Each chapter of My Berlin Kitchen ends with recipes as interesting and varied as Luisa’s life: German cheesecake with quark and Alsatian flatbread with bacon; Italian roast peppers and traditional ragu; American fake baked beans and Mexican meatballs. All of the recipes sound delicious and seem relatively easy to make.
Luisa finally felt enough at home in Berlin to introduce her German friends to spicy foods. After her first spicy food party, Luisa discovered she had a receptive audience:
“The pot of [Meatballs in Chipotle-Tomato Sauce] had one lone meatball [left] in it. … But the mild pork goulash was entirely untouched. During the rest of the party, which lasted until 4:00 a.m., friends came up to me, fanning their mouths…’Those meatballs were insane. I need the recipe. And another beer.’”
Luisa’s meatball recipe, adapted from a Diana Kennedy recipe, is easy to make, full-flavored, and delicious. As it simmers, Meatballs in Chipotle-Tomato Sauce fills the house with the best aroma ever: the smell of a welcoming and comforting home.
NOTE: Viking/Penguin gave me a review copy of My Berlin Kitchen and is sponsoring the giveway.