A go-to dish from home is the arancini at his uncle’s deli in Fairfield.
The moment my bus pulled away from the curb of Newark’s Penn Station — only late by a modest 12 minutes, impressively enough — I felt it. With only half a cup of coffee to assuage its relentless appetite, my stomach began to rumble in longing for the hometown staples I’d savored over Thanksgiving break.
“Cheap sushi,” it whispered. “Fried eggplant sandwiches,” it groaned. “Real pizza,” it bellowed. In solidarity with my gut, I began to dread the three more weeks away from my favorite foods.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to eat in Baltimore. I crave pit beef every time the smoky aroma of charcoal wafts past my nose, and I’ve come to dump Old Bay on everything but Cheerios when I’m at home in Jersey.
Still, the comforting flavors of my favorite Charm City pho spot don’t hold a candle to the nostalgic power of the arancini at my uncle’s deli in Fairfield. There’s something about eating out when I head back for breaks that makes me feel more at home than anything else.
Of course, a steaming bowl of bistecca alla pizzaiola (or as my family’s pidgin Italian-American dialect calls it, “steak pizzaiole”) greeting me when I make it to the house is a lovely welcoming committee. But for some reason, it isn’t until I dive into something like a ripping hot bowl of curry at my favorite local Indian establishment that I feel the rush of hometown warmth.
To be sure, North Jersey has a comparative advantage when it comes to local food culture. Westfield, where I lived out my most formative eating years, is under an hour by train from New York City, a trip I can occasionally convince a friend to take for a splurge-worthy evening at a trendy new restaurant.
We’re also a 20 minute drive from Edison, the most concentrated Indian community in the U.S. with a variety of South Asian cuisines to match. Bergen County, with massive Korean and Japanese supermarkets and delectable spots to sample ramen, chirashi and fried chicken, is under an hour away by car.
Meanwhile Jersey City, the most ethnically diverse municipality in the country by some metrics, offers endless opportunities to sample dishes hailing from Thailand, Colombia and everywhere in between.
And most relevant to my stomach’s furious demands for the taste of home, Essex and Union Counties offer the best Italian-American fare in the country, in my not-so-humble opinion.
Put simply, I got lucky. Not everyone goes home to a cornucopia of global cuisines and even fewer live a hop, skip and jump away from a worldwide dining destination. But I promise you that, with just a little digging, you can unearth a diverse local food scene wherever you call home.
I can also guarantee that as you explore the institutions of dining and hole-in-the-wall upstarts that make your stomping grounds so delicious, you’ll often find that you have immigrants to thank.
Immigration is a singular force in enriching American culture, and in no realm is this effect more palpable than in the food world. When immigrants arrive on American shores, they often guard the cherished dishes and techniques they brought from home closely.
They’ll share them with their new home, but meticulously preserve them, uncompromisingly representing the culture they hold with such pride. Alternately, they — or, even more often, their children — may adapt these precious heirloom recipes to the available ingredients and the palates of a new place, producing an altogether original cuisine not to be found anywhere else in the world.
These prime examples of the most organic kind of fusion are bound to be found in your hometown, be it a bustling metropolis or a sleepy suburb. And beyond these mom-and-pop establishments, you’re more likely now than ever before to come across restaurants helmed by highly trained, well-traveled chefs seeking to make a name for themselves in the dining world.
In the past 10 ten years or so, the number of chef-owned-and-operated restaurants has skyrocketed, with younger talents turning away from risky and expensive big city openings in favor of establishing a niche in less daunting areas. There’s a good chance one of them has elected to make camp near your hometown, so you’ll have no trouble at all finding a new, innovative favorite this winter.
So in the coming weeks, as you search desperately for new ways to avoid the exam-sized boulder barreling toward you with thunderous fury, do a little digging on your hometown’s food scene. You have a pretty sure chance of discovering a new favorite, be it a legendary taco stand, an iconic slice shop or an innovative eatery bringing the latest in dining trends. Find it, eat it and miss it the second you begin the bus ride back.