My novel The Journey Home is both a love story and a rumination on the nature and meaning of home, a subject that means a great deal to me. It is also a novel about food. This happened organically because I have come so strongly to equate home with food. My parents were both excellent cooks and our house was the place where people came to eat. There seems to be a meal involved in every happy memory I have of growing up.
I invented all the dishes and food scenes in the novel, but in the process, my mind went back to a number of memorable food events in my life. One such event happened when my two oldest kids were in their early teens. As they had the previous few years, they’d gone off to summer camp for four weeks, and my wife and I went up to visit them for the mid-session parents’ weekend. In previous years, we’d stayed in a hotel and eaten in the many restaurants in the area. That year, though, my sister had moved to a house about an hour from the camp. She happened to be away for the weekend and told us we could stay in her house.
Since the kids had been living on a steady diet of cafeteria food for two weeks (the highlight being all the grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup they could eat), they asked that I cook dinner for them Saturday night. My daughter picked the main course (pasta with broccoli rabe and olives) and my son chose the dessert (chocolate pudding pie). The tenor of the day was decidedly different because of this. We did many of the things we always did on parents’ weekends – lunch at the place by the water, shopping at the nearby college town – but going to a supermarket for food and then going to my sister’s place to cook made the entire thing seem less like an interlude and more like . . . home. That night, while I was cooking, my daughter came up to me and hugged me for no particular reason. She had always been affectionate and we’d always been close, but spontaneous hugging was not in her repertoire. I realized then that, in spite of the litany of camp stories she’d been telling all day and the camp friends she claimed to be missing so much, that she’d been a little homesick.
The meal that night was purely casual – dishes I’d made dozens of times and would certainly make dozens, if not hundreds, of times more. What I realized that night, though, was something I’d never really acknowledged before: that “home” was a portable thing. You could carry it wherever you could bring the people you loved and the items that brought you pleasure. Interestingly, both kids had a harder time separating at the end of that parents’ weekend than they had in years past. I think that, as much as they loved the camp (they continued to go for several more years), the reminder of home underscored what they loved more.