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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Hungry For Home
Germans have the same complaint about American baked goods and Hollywood happy endings: too sweet. Since moving to Berlin six years ago, I have received ample criticism for my cobbler, a simple recipe I received from my late grandmother in Mississippi: one stick of butter, one cup of sugar, one cup of flour, one cup of fruit, little bit of salt, little bit of baking soda. This recipe was my go-to crowd pleaser in the States, and I don’t have a huge repertoire standing behind it (my second option is a bowl of strawberries served with chocolate squares. Third and final option: ice cream and toppings).
As much as I wish my adopted countrymen would beg me to bake them cobbler, I understand where they’re coming from. I dislike many of the pies I sample here, which taste like everyone’s still on GDR rations. I put sugar on top of my (unsweetened) whipped cream in restaurants, which draws looks of disgust. Moreover, I can easily summon my most wrenching cake experience, which occurred not in Germany but in Shanghai, China, on my twelfth birthday, in 1993.
We had arrived in Shanghai just a few hours earlier. We weren’t on a family romp through China, to take a few pictures of the Great Wall and head back to Atlanta: we were moving there, as per instructions from my father’s company. Over the next two years, Dad would be setting up a joint venture with a Chinese firm, while my sister Blair and I attended the American school, where my mother would also teach. On paper, it sounded fine, even thrilling. But through the smeared taxi window, on the nighttime drive from the airport to our hotel, things looked grim. Streetlights were few and far between, and their dim yellow halos briefly illuminated concrete housing blocks and dirty tile buildings. Bikers wove in and out of our lane, momentarily lit by our taxi’s headlights like deep-sea creatures swimming past a diver’s lamp.
By the time we reached the hotel, we were tired and hungry. We schlepped over to the Shanghai Jax, a hotel restaurant that promised “Western cuisine,” including hamburgers and Caesar salad. After the waiter took our orders, Blair held her water glass up suspiciously. “What’s this white stuff floating in here?” she asked. “It’s fine,” Dad said. My mom hailed the waiter. He brought Blair another glass of water, with just as much white stuff, and Blair, to my surprise, was allowed Sprite – a windfall for her, since we were usually just permitted milk or juice.
After dinner, Mom and Dad exchanged secretive glances as three waiters suddenly surrounded our table and burst into a heavily accented rendition of “Happy Birthday.” A fourth produced a glistening slice of chocolate cake, topped with slick white icing and a single candle was placed before me. “Not bad,” Blair said. I batted her hovering fork away, blew out the candle and took my first bite.
It was a big bite, which was a mistake. The cherries tasted gluey and rancid, and instead of safe, comforting chocolate, my mouth was filled with a sharp, unfamiliar flavor: amaretto, which the chef had included in stunning proportions. I wanted to protest, to send it back; or even better, to send myself back to Atlanta, where they knew how to make decent birthday cake. I could feel Mom and Dad’s expectant gaze. Blair, meanwhile, dug in. To buy time, I took a sip of the water, which looked like it had tiny shreds of paper towel floating in it. I was counting on Blair to complain about the cake, so I wouldn’t have to be the ungrateful one.
Unfortunately, she licked her fork clean, and reached over for more. I felt alone in my disproportionate disappointment, betrayed by the cake and by her cheerful tucking in. But I didn’t want to blow my twelfth birthday by acting like a four-year-old, so I smiled and took a small bite of icing. That night, in our hotel beds, we each fell into a deep jet-lagged coma, four strange white particles drifting to sleep in a city of fourteen million Shanghainese residents. The next morning, we woke up foreign.
My six years in Berlin are the longest I’ve lived anywhere. And while I understand most of the German being spoken around me, I still remain leery of many German dishes. Early autumn, when cabbage is everywhere, is especially rough. In the farmer’s market, as Berliners beam at the dark purple heads like they’ve won the lottery, I sigh and reach for the last sad-looking tomatoes of the season.
One German culinary tradition I can truly get behind, however, is “Abendbrot,” or “evening bread,” which basically involves taking everything out of the refrigerator, arranging it on platters in an appealing manner, and calling it dinner. Unwittingly, I was an “Abendbrot” aficionado for years before I even set foot in Germany (often to the disappointment of my dinner party guests), just as I was routinely making “Apfelschorle” (apple juice and seltzer water) without knowing there was a country where this most delicious of beverages was readily available, even at gas stations, with the ingredients mixed in just the right proportions (slightly more apple juice than seltzer water).
Eventually, in Shanghai, the city’s cuisine grew to taste like home for my family. But during those first suspicious months, we stuck to the Shanghai Jax, and to whatever Mom could forage from the Wellcome, the tiny Western grocery store at the bottom of our apartment complex.
Ah, the Wellcome! The only hope for our tastebuds in exile, although its misspelled name should have clued us in to its dubious contents. Is there any better symbol for homesickness than the foreign grocery store, or the “international aisle” of the supermarket? And is there any better symbol for the incurability of homesickness than the crushing disappointment that these markets/aisles inevitably yield?
To reach the Wellcome, you simply rode the elevator down from our 27th floor apartment and turned left outside the lobby. This meant that, to go grocery shopping, you didn’t have to step out onto Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai’s busiest streets; you didn’t have to make dubious deals with the money changers lurking outside the Portman’s entrance, who traded Foreign Exchange Currency for black-market RMB at egregious prices; nor did you have to brave a local wet market, full of vegetables you didn’t recognize and live animals that were all too familiar. In other words, you didn’t have to enter Shanghai.
Down the corridor from our elevator lobby, past the pounding fountain and its persistent chlorine smell, the Wellcome Store waited. Supermarket was a misleading term; its size was closer to that of a gas station convenience store. The Wellcome logo – McDonald’s-yellow letters against a ketchup red background, unashamed of its misspelling – beckoned us on our first trips inside its doors, whispering Wellcome, before we knew better. I hated, from the beginning, that hint of a pun, when there was none. The Wellcome Store, it must be said, did nothing well.
The Wellcome’s aisles were tiny, crammed with compromises: food from back home, or in home’s vague direction. Western women, often newly housewived due to their husbands’ overseas promotions, lacking their own work visas, bumped carts with gossiping aiyis, Chinese maids. Back in Atlanta, Blair and I had complained endlessly about public school lunches and were ecstatic to learn that Shanghai American School had no cafeteria (nor, for that matter, a gym, which we were less happy about). But our dreams of fancy packed lunches, filled with faddish items like string cheese, all the rage back in Atlanta, quickly faded in the Wellcome. It would be instant Ramen noodles, every school day, for two years.
Other Wellcome store products (Australian boxed milk, bad British ideas like Marmite) tasted more foreign than the Shanghainese dishes (braised eggplant, hairy crab) we had begun sampling on cautious forays beyond the apartment complex. The Wellcome was like an extravagant alcoholic’s visit: occasionally thrilling, mostly disappointing, and inevitably depressing. Snapple would suddenly appear, out of nowhere, as though we were in a waking dream of being back in Atlanta. Laundry starch, however, went missing for months at a time. When that happened, my mother brandished the numb smile I had worn after tasting the birthday cake. We were all smiling like that, a lot.
The Wellcome’s worst crime was its bakery selection. Cruelly, the bread was beautiful. Perfectly shaped baguettes with a buttery tan, sturdy loaves of wheat and nut. Its smell was off, however, like a grocery-store peach in January, which looks peach-like but has no aroma, other than a whiff of the produce section, with a little floor wax. The Wellcome bread smelled like an empty cereal box. To bite into Wellcome bread was to be told you were not loved back, that your pet wasn’t going to make it through the night, that there were still another ten long months until home leave, our annual summer trip back to the States.
Ultimately, the Wellcome Store pointed out the preposterousness of our own position: foreigners in Shanghai in the early nineties. Lured by Deng Xiao Ping’s “Open Door Policy,” my father’s company was eager to increase their market share in China, but like the Digestives gathering dust in the Wellcome’s fourth aisle, the four of us often felt largely out of place and undesired. The Wellcome, its obnoxiously assertive title to the contrary, was not welcome, it was an eyesore. And two years later, just as we had begun to experiment with Shanghainese street cuisine, savoring shucai bao, steamed vegetable buns, we heard that our own expiry date in China had passed: we were bound for Singapore.
During my family’s first months in Singapore, fellow expatriates steered us to Jason’s, an American grocery store that boasted no less than three different kinds of string cheese. We found ourselves missing the Wellcome, however; reminiscing about its awkward, unappetizing offerings. And as we settled into Singapore, a veritable oasis of consumerism – shopping malls, cineplexes – we didn’t spend as much time in Jason’s as you might have expected. Sure, we frequented the American Club and Pete’s Place, a pizza joint downtown; but not any more than the local hawker stalls and the Chinese seafood places on East Coast Parkway. We had become a different kind of expat, the chronic kind. The one who knows how to order dishes in Mandarin and who still wakes up at 5am to watch a baseball game that starts at 5pm Eastern Standard Time. The neither here nor there kind of expat, for whom the notion of home grows hazier with each year away.
In Berlin, I now split the difference, approximately, between Asia and North America. Here, I’m foreign, but not that foreign. A few weeks ago, I went to a café with a German friend and we shared a piece of New York cheesecake. We agreed that it was delicious. “And Germans say that Americans don’t have a culinary tradition,” I scoffed.
“Anything tastes good if you put enough sugar in it,” my friend responded, echoing another school of American food-haters in Germany, who have a different critique than the Germans who find the sweetness of American desserts unappetizing. This second faction likes to literally have their cake and eat it too; you’ll see them happily consuming brownies while they complain about how unimaginative the dessert is, how addicted Americans are to sugar.
I just rolled my eyes and took another bite of the cheesecake, which tasted like it could have come straight from New York: perfect graham cracker crust, the ideal amount of sweetness lacing the creamy, ever-so-tart cheese cake filling. I ignored my friend, who had begun talking about Americans consuming too much ibuprofen, to concentrate on the cheesecake, to be transported, for a second, back home, before coming back to my adopted home.
There’s something irresistible about living in a state of subtle missing while exploring and incorporating foreign places within yourself. But it bears the danger of nurturing a smug liminality. When I tuned back into my friend, she was asking if it was true that Americans ate ibuprofen with breakfast. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” I told her. But of course the same could be said of me on many German, Chinese, and even American matters, now that I’ve been gone so long.
For many years, I thought missing a place meant it was where you belonged. That’s why I moved back to Shanghai after college, and why I left Shanghai, a year later, for graduate school in the US. But now I’ve come to think that I belong, in part, to the missing. It’s its own hunger, and I don’t think I would recognize myself if I ever stopped craving the taste of somewhere else.
Brittani Sonnenberg (@BritSonnenberg) is the author of the novel Home Leave, published by Grand Central. She has an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. She also works as a visiting lecturer and advisor at the MFA program of the University of Hong Kong. Her award-winning fiction has been widely published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O’Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by the Guardian, the Hairpin, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University. She was a European Journalism Fellow at Berlin’s Freie Universität from 2009-2010 and served as the editor of the American Academy’s Berlin Journal from 2011-2013.