Smorgasbord of hometown delicacies nourishes nostalgia

Courtesy of Tamika Whitenack

After loading my suitcases into the trunk, I am ready for the next order of business: eating fruit.

As I settle into the back seat for the ride home from the Oakland, CA airport, my mother passes me a plastic bag filled with bright orange satsuma mandarins. I remove the peel in a long spiral and greedily consume the tender segments inside, devouring the bag of fruit as if I were a child with a newly acquired bag of Halloween candy.

Satsuma mandarins are tastier than a typical tangerine or Cutie. They are sweeter, plumper and refreshingly juicy—better yet, my mother always takes great care to choose the best ones at our local natural grocery store. Fresh California fruits are the first of many “welcome home” foods for me, an appetizer to whet my palate for the feast of scrumptious victuals I can expect to enjoy over the course of the next few weeks at home.

Winter break is a time to relax, sleep and temporarily forget about Vassar life, but it is also a time to diversify our diets. As students on full meal plans, our food choices can be limited by the options offered, and time away from Vassar invites us to explore different flavors. Returning home for the holidays means time to prepare home-cooked meals and indulge in easy access to different ingredients and partake in special seasonal fare.

In my household, the winter holidays usher in a whirlwind of baking as we prepare sweet treats to gift and share at Christmas and New Year’s gatherings. Faithfully following our old handwritten recipe cards, we produce piles of little cookies: shiny walnut-studded shortbread squares, classic oatmeal chocolate chip and tiny Russian tea cakes smothered in confectioner’s sugar, resembling powdery white snowballs. My personal contribution to the sugar frenzy is homemade peppermint bark, crafted with my ideal ratio: a thick layer of dark chocolate coated with a light spread of white chocolate and topped with a sprinkling of crushed peppermint shards.

Memories from this past Thanksgiving materialize in the form of frozen leftovers specially saved for me to enjoy upon my arrival home. One of our Thanksgiving traditions is homemade Chinese sticky rice, and in recent years my uncle has been experimenting with vegetarian versions for those of us who are less inclined to carnivory. The chewy texture and umami flavors of sticky rice are a gustatory delight, and I am pleased to partake in a tardy taste of Thanksgiving. The preservation of this personal favorite is not only a comfort to my stomach; it also warms my heart to know my family is thinking of my appetite even when I’m not physically present to celebrate with them.

Eating Asian cuisine is always one of the highlights of my culinary adventures at home, and winter vacation calls forth one particularly notable Asian meal: my Japanese grandma’s lovingly prepared New Year’s Day feast. I am happy to assist her in cooking some of my favorite dishes: an assortment of vegetables cooked in a broth mixture made from dashi (bonito fish stock), soy sauce, mirin and sugar.

Courtesy of Tamika Whitenack

Beyond family favorites, dining at home also affords me access to some regional food. I devour salads every dinner, which feature vibrant avocado slices, tender lettuce from our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, and a bright dressing concocted from fresh squeezed lemon juice and our favorite California olive oil. I also adore artisan bread from our preferred local bakery, Acme Bread. I don’t eat much bread at Vassar, so it is a luxury to come home and eat cranberry walnut raisin toast or a whole wheat seed bread topped with a poached egg.

Courtesy of Tamika Whitenack

While my own time at home hosts countless treasured food experiences, I was curious about how my meals compare to others.

In the spirit of hearty holiday home-cooking, Kathryn Burke ’20 shared her love of vegan shepherd’s pie. Earthy and comforting, this dish features creamy sweet potato on top of a rich lentil and vegetable filling. The dish is full of contrasts: crispy and smooth, savory and sweet, healthy and hearty. Burke and her sister now make this dietary-restriction-friendly shepherd’s pie for every holiday, and have even converted other family members, who now sing its praises.

Sumiko Neary ’20 finds her flavors overseas, in the chain restaurants of Japan. Although she grew up in New York City, Sumiko considers Japan one of her homes, and always anticipates eating gyu-don (牛丼) at Yoshinoya, a restaurant she frequents each time she visits. According to Neary, the mixture of rice and oily beef evokes a textural combination similar to that of cereal in milk, complemented by flavorful onions and broth. Neary fondly recalls the time she shared gyu-don with a friend from high school during a trip together last winter break—although initially uncertain, the friend was eventually satiated with the dish.

Courtesy of Sumiko Neary

For many of us, winter break is a time of relaxation and rejuvenation, and food can play an essential role in our recharging processes. Food nourishes us, and the flavors and memories we experience away from Vassar are often a welcome change. Personally, much of my mental space is occupied with thoughts of my next snack, and the diversity and familiarity of foods available at home deliver welcome rewards to my high expectations. Beyond the satisfaction of a well-fed stomach, the foods of my winter break correspond with feelings of family, traditions, and geographical sense of home—a reminder of the importance of food to our connections with people, places and communities.

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