It is said that the smell of certain meals can trigger nostalgia, and, for myself, I can say with complete certainty that this is very much the case.
After moving across cities, countries, continents, and—at times—oceans food has been one of the few constants, the one thing that always brings a sense of familiarity and comfort. These are often childhood meals, but, over the years, new comfort foods have made their way into my subconscious.
Nostalgically, I sometimes attempt to find ingredients closely resembling those of my family’s traditional foods wherever I happen to be in the world, combing through small market stalls in the highlands of Guatemala for that ever elusive dill—the one ingredient that I cannot live without—or coming across Guatemalan Sazon Completa, which is an almost perfect substitute for the often used Vegeta spice in Eastern European cuisine.
This year, after hitting submit on my last essay of the term and packing a small backpack full of warm clothes, I found myself spending the winter holidays in the high altitude, semi-desert region of northwest Mexico in Durango and Coahuila states, with carne asada, gorditas de deshebrada, lonches, tortillones, caldillo durranguense, and tamales con frijolitos bringing me solace.
An ocean away, a war continues to rage, and for the first time in my life, I cannot bring myself to eat the traditional foods of home. I cry over Chebureki, traditional Crimean Tatar foods so loved in Ukraine. I do not have the heart to spend hours rolling flour and dough before painstakingly pinching together my potato and tvorog cheese varenkyky. I cannot bring myself to grate endless beets staining my fingers a wine red before adding handfuls of chopped dill.
Instead, I head further into the desert, knowing that almost an entire year has somehow passed, an unbearable year in many ways. In the desert—with its vast empty spaces, ghostly white shrubs, endless nopales, craggy rock outcroppings, and dusty highways winding through endless twists and turns—the one place in which, for one brief moment, I can forget everything—I create a new tradition. As I cover myself in endless wool blankets and layer upon layer of clothing against the frigid cold, I hope that, many years from now, I will pass by a food stall with the smell of masa dough and refried beans, topped with Chihuahua cheese, and remember that somehow it was possible to make it through another difficult year, and that beauty remains in this world. It is the only way to survive this endless fear, worry, and guilt—albeit in privileged safety—an insignificant experience in comparison to those experiencing this daily lived reality on the ground.
And one day, perhaps, I will feel comfortable to take out the rolling pin again and roll out some dough without tears in my eyes, and will once again bring a mix of home to wherever in the world I happen to find myself.