Quick: What does Boston taste like? Clam chowder? Baked beans? Every place has its native flavor. But sometimes it's not until you leave that you know what you'll miss.
Just ask Denyce Wicht. A Bostonian for almost five years, she hails from Milwaukee, where much of the fare draws on the native food of German settlers. To celebrate her home state, Wicht recently hosted a "Wispride" night featuring bratwurst boiled in beer and browned on the grill, with sauerkraut and German potato salad, all washed down with one of Milwaukee's many regional brews.
The spicy sausage makes Wicht think of summers at her family's Wisconsin farm with her father manning the grill. "Other people have hamburgers and hot dogs," says Wicht. "We have hamburgers and brats."
Wicht isn't alone as a transplant with taste memories of home. During these dark winter days, thoughts turn to comfort food, and often the most comforting foods are the ones we grew up with. Most cooks have a standby dish, an old reliable recipe, maybe from their mother or grandmother, that makes perfect food for a gathering.
For special-occasion brunches, Luke Crafton, a native of Henderson, Ky., makes sausage gravy, a simple mix of sausage, drippings, flour, milk, and lots of fresh-ground pepper. Mama Georgie, Crafton's paternal grandmother, always made the gravy on Christmas morning as part of a big country breakfast. Crafton likes to make it for friends at what he terms "Big Chill" events, when a crowd gathers. "When we're staying at a friend's house in Maine, the guys will make breakfast, and each of us does what we know best. For me, that's sausage gravy."
He cooks a whole package of sausage even though there's only a small amount of sausage in the gravy. "I think more sausage is better. More breakfast is better." Crafton considers the gravy a "gateway food. It escalates things. I start out making biscuits and gravy and wind up with a huge breakfast with eggs, toast, the works."
When Rulla Tamimi came to college in Boston from the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, her mother would send her care packages filled with food from home -- Cougar Gold cheese from the Washington State University Creamery, chocolates and mustard from Shaw Island, even whole crates of red Delicious apples. These days when she feels nostalgic for home, she makes her mother's salmon dip. "People in Seattle take salmon for granted," says Tamimi. "They give it as gifts around the holidays, and you wind up with so much of it, you don't know what to do with it."
Her mother improvised the recipe after a neighbor delivered Tamimi's family a smoked share of his annual catch. Served with rice crackers, the silky, salty dip has a saturated seafood flavor that reminds Tamimi of her home on the other ocean where she once lived.
Another West Coast transplant was moved to action not by nostalgia, but outrage. When longtime California resident Mike Hodgson arrived in Boston, he was shocked by the bland salsa on offer in area restaurants. "It was like ketchup with a dash of oregano," says Hodgson. "Just tomatoes. No hot peppers, no onions, no soul."
Hodgson now makes his own salsa from a recipe given to him by his college roommate. To a base of chopped Roma tomatoes, Hodgson adds peppers, onion, black beans, and cilantro. Hodgson also insists on cumin and adobo seasoning, preferably one with hot pepper. The salsa's flavor reminds him of his days at Berkeley, he says, with its sunshine and year-round farmer's markets.
Hodgson made the salsa, which will keep in the fridge for a week, for his recent Super Bowl party, but he admits it's hard to share: "It's so precious, I want to eat it all myself."