The Timeless Bliss of Eating Hometown Food

For many holiday travelers, a trip back to where they grew up is a chance to revisit the local haunts they spend the rest of the year craving.

Adam Lau / AP

A four-hour wait is nothing in the face of nostalgia. When Matt Fligiel learned in 2013 that the future of Blimpyburger was in jeopardy, he knew he had to savor one last meal at the local institution before it closed. “They said they were going to reopen, but nobody actually believed them,” said the 24-year-old native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who now lives in Chicago. “I waited with two of my friends … on the third-to-last night to get some. We got there at 6, and we got our food at 10:30.” To his surprise, Blimpyburger did later reopen. But Fligiel, who had eaten at the spot since childhood, speaks of his quest for a final feast with a sense of duty and no regret.

Such dedication to a haunt frequented since grade school is hardly unique, particularly among those who’ve moved away from where they grew up. Despite the countless food blogs, ratings websites, and Instagram posts at diners’ fingertips, there’s not much incentive to be an adventurous eater when traveling back home for the holidays. While this season’s most elaborate rituals tend to revolve around lovingly prepared meals shared with family and friends, a trip home also offers a much-anticipated chance to visit treasured local establishments. Nostalgia and regional pride—not to mention the nature of memory itself—can make these outings feel both magical and obligatory.

For many, the ritual of heading to a cherished hometown spot after time away is akin to a pilgrimage; consistency is key. “I don’t go home enough now to try anything new or switch it up,” said Maylin Meisenheimer, a 25-year-old New York City resident who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, which she visits once or twice a year. “I’m only [there] for four days, [so] if I’m going to eat out, I only want to go to my favorite places, and I get the same thing,” she added, singling out a restaurant called Taqueria Acapulco.

Earlier this month, AAA forecast that 112.5 million Americans would travel this holiday season, from December 22 to January 1. For those who sojourn home, the trips mark an opportunity to enjoy meals they once took for granted—especially if they’ve moved somewhere that lacks a signature food or cuisine they were raised with. When Ryan Harrington, an adjunct professor of food studies at New York University, returns home to Santa Barbara, California, there’s no question that his first stop will be the fast-casual Mexican spot Freebirds.

“My plane could land at 2 a.m., and I would still go, get in line, and get my arm-size burrito, and just devour that thing,” said Harrington, who has lived in New York for more than a decade. “Mexican food had always been something I was really partial to … Freebirds especially was a place that my friends and I—from middle school riding bikes to high school when we would cut class to go get a longer lunch—this was a place that we often went to.”

While traditional holiday fare such as Christmas hams and Hanukkah latkes tend to dominate the discussion about festive eating, subtler food-related customs can reveal a lot about a place’s culture and history. If you grew up in the northern Chicago suburbs like I did, for instance, you might know to call the Chinese restaurant Yen Yen in Buffalo Grove at 5 p.m. on Christmas Day just to have a shot at eating by 7 p.m. Local favorites might become fixtures because they showcase what makes a place unique, such as its migratory history or its economic underpinnings. The decadent Oberweis milkshakes I gladly slurp in the dead of a Chicago winter are made possible by the rich dairy industry in Illinois and Wisconsin. Sometimes the adage holds true: You really are what you eat.

“Food has long been a reflection of who we are and what we believe,” Harrington said. “Because eating is such a central part of our everyday lives, even the small greasy-spoon diner you have in your hometown and the hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant … are strong indicators of what people in the town hold dear to themselves and how not only they think about food, but how they think about themselves.”

For those who traveled home this season, local pride, more than actual flavor, might dictate restaurant decisions, and standby spots become the natural settings for annual reunions. It’s common to see fans of regional chains such as Whataburger and In-N-Out posting tributes on social media after finally getting their hands on their beloved grub. “As a California native, one of the best moments of the year is when I visit home for Christmas, and take that first bite of In N Out,” reads one tweet. Fittingly, these smaller franchises also have intense fandoms that are convinced that their favorite reigns supreme. (David Silberberg, who grew up in Westlake Village, California, and now lives in Washington, D.C., told me In-N-Out was the clear winner and Whataburger “doesn’t even come close”; Meisenheimer, who declared those “fighting words,” said, “A Texan will choose Whataburger over In-N-Out every time.”)

To be sure, regular old nostalgia—a force that is as commonplace as it is amorphous and deeply personal—shapes people’s connections to the food they grew up eating. Sometimes specific meals hark back to the first exuberant moments of adulthood, so that a plate of nachos tastes less like cheese and more like teenage independence. For Katy Wahl—who is from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, but went to college in Indiana—the Nashville taco joint Taqueria del Sol is indelibly tied to her adolescence. “There was one five minutes from my high school, so that would be our Friday after-school ritual,” Wahl recalled. “They have outstanding queso and guacamole, and we would get tons for the big table.” While Nashville’s food scene has exploded in recent years, Wahl finds herself returning again and again to her old stomping grounds, as if pulled by an invisible line.

While this sort of affection makes intuitive sense, there’s also research to help explain it. In 2014, scientists at the University of Haifa found a link between the part of the brain that stores memories of new tastes (the cortex) and the area that records memories of where and when an eating experience happens (the hippocampus). They concluded that where people eat something has implications for how much they’ll enjoy the food itself—so just because they hated the rib eye at one restaurant doesn’t mean they actually dislike steak. It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that forming positive early memories in connection with a restaurant might make someone more inclined to fall in love with the food there.

As for Harrington, he thinks that people return to, and extol the virtues of, their hometown favorites partly because they’re stuck in a dance between their past and present selves, and because they subconsciously want to reaffirm the conclusions they came to as children. “Childhood is really an important time in forming your own identity,” Harrington said. “If I go back and eat [food I loved when I was 14], it’s going to be a lot harder for me to say, ‘This isn’t that good,’ because in some ways, that’s saying who I was and who I am is mistaken or incorrect.”

As the holidays come to an end and travelers return to their regular routines, social media can help ease the pain of separation while offering a reminder that the love we feel for any restaurant goes beyond the food itself. For me, scrolling through photos of Homer’s Ice Cream—the shop in Wilmette, Illinois, that is so special I wrote my college-admissions essays about it—is like getting an intimate look at all the casual moments of joy that sustain a community. By sharing photos of meals or tweeting at establishments, people can take a little piece of their favorite spots back with them. And whether or not an order of animal-style fries or a thick chocolate shake is actually as delicious as one might remember, the comfort of a familiar meal can serve as a much-needed salve for the less sweet memories of life.