Nostalgia of the palate: Immigrants don’t leave their preferences in food behind

Apr 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on “nostalgia of the palate among foreigners.”

By Liliana Rocío León Moreno

Have you ever felt that you need comfort food from home? It’s a need that many migrants carry with them in their suitcase.

The nostalgia of the palate is the sensation of missing the flavors and dishes of one’s native country. It is usually most intense for expats, migrants and refugees within the first year of their arrival in a new country.

Food preference is a cultural construct learned during childhood from parental figures such as the mother, grandmother or father, which shape taste preference towards certain flavors. And, even if we change our eating habits as we grow up, “the memory and the weight of the first alimentary learning remain forever in our consciousness,” says  American anthropologist, Sydney Mintz.

Tastes in food are first learned through family experiences. (“Thanksgiving” by Norman Rockwell)

Cultural identity is exercised through cooking as well as eating, as both actions are full of symbolism which become cultural identifiers and have deep significance within communities. Equally important is food consumption behaviors, such as using one’s hands, or utensils, and protocols for serving food at the table. These practices are learned in childhood and are socially structured to become part of everyday life.

These alimentary practices solidify cultural and social norms, which Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, defines as habitus. Habitus, he says, has a function in the development of our identity and is what fixes the social structure in the individual, and defines one’s preferences in the taste and the choices in food.

The Cuenca “gringo cluster” at a favorite comfort food eatery in El Centro.

What happens when people move away from their home base, their culture, their family group? Once the individual separates and starts a new life in another country, the new flavors are often meaningless, and in some cases is unappetizing. Often, whole meals are rejected for not tasting like native foods because there remains a longing for culturally identifiable dishes such as — in the case of Ecuadorians — cuy, yaguarlocro, mote or chocho.

Retirees to new countries, usually from North America and Europe, who never feel comfortable with local food, feel an increasing longing to the flavors of their homeland. The nostalgia of the palate is born.

This feeling is the manifestation of safeguarding their alimentary identity because it’s the way back to childhood, or to return to feel comfortable with food, hence the term, comfort food. Interestingly, this tension is apparent only with food that is directly within the immigrant’s alimentary identity.

Ecuadorian kids dining in the park.

In the long process of adaptation, retirees will have to expand their traditional way of eating and cooking to include culinary adventures, and be willing to adapt to new “cultural” dishes. This happens because the habitus, despite being transferable, (from their parents to the migrant) is not immutable.

Once the alimentary identity is incorporated, it becomes transformed and stops being circumscribed to a territory, or a specific culture. This acceptance lessens cultural shock with the new country and culture.

It should be noted that the transformation of the food habitus is also reflected in the change of attitude towards the host country. When the immigrant feels more comfortable with their new condition and enjoys it, it is easy for them to negotiate new flavors and, therefore, other aspects of the new culture.

Liliana Rocío León Moreno holds a masters degree in visual anthropology from the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede Ecuador and has focused her research on the food preferences of North American expats and immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela.

Photos (except for Rockwell) by Robert Bradley

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