When I first entered St. Louis, I felt an overwhelming sense of being out of place. The pizza I had ordered came with Provel cheese over mozzarella, and a thin buttery crust compared to Lou Malnati’s deep dish-style pizza. While I knew that college is all about change and making new friends, I hadn’t considered that I would be acclimating to a new food scene. And I certainly had arrived not only on foreign ground, but foreign foodie ground.

Growing up around the city of Chicago, I always knew that Illinois was a part of the Midwest; it just happened to have a major metropolitan area. As I packed up my things and drove down to St. Louis to move into my dorm for freshman year, passing field upon field of corn and soybeans, I felt I had entered a different Midwest: the heartland. Saying goodbye to my parents was one of the hardest things I did. As we enjoyed our last meal together of Banh Mi sandwiches from one of the local St. Louis Vietnamese restaurants, I felt I was not only leaving behind my family, but the comforts of our personal food scene.

There would be no more quarantine cooking, no more pitching in to make dinner together, and no more heading to our favorite Korean restaurant. Here I was in one of the world’s barbecue capitals, yet strangely averse to pork. Moving out felt more like moving away from what centered me. Not only was I leaving behind my home, but my familiar food scenes. So while I transferred my sophomore year to a school closer to home, I’m not only moving near my family, but near all the foods of my childhood.

When I set out to pitch an idea for Becoming Local — all about maintaining your roots and growing into new food scenes —I couldn’t help but wonder...what comprises a food scene? I can call to mind many clichés: the ooey buttery scent of vanilla and melting chocolate chips in the oven from my mom’s homemade cookies; or maybe something more familial, like folding and filling kimchi mandoo with my aunt and pinching the fat dumpling dough; or perhaps even the act of tossing the salad and whisking together olive oil and vinegar as my mom prepares the rest of the meal. However these acts, clichéd or personal, familial and recently nostalgic, are probably not what comes to mind when picturing the traditional food scene. Any sort of “cultural scene” feels like a term reserved for something metropolitan, new or novel, flashy or hole in the wall. Like walking onto a movie as it’s playing, you are discovering something in action. These simple tasks from inside my kitchen walls appeared to be local to the extent they only pertained to myself. 

ramen, salad, chicken, meat
Jessica Alvarado Gamez

Like a series of Nesting Dolls, if I expand beyond the inner doll of family cooking into my town, I’ll find the second doll composed of family dinners at familiar neighborhood spots. My local favorites include: The pizza shop whose pepperoni and hot honey pizza I’ve shared with friends on the beach watching the sunset; the local ice cream shop where my youngest sister atrociously ordered lemon in a pretzel cone (ugh); and the snow lined windows of a Japanese restaurant as I sipped ramen. Each piece of my local food scene was deeply embedded in family and friend life that comprised most of my childhood and high school experience.

Moving past the core doll of my family, and the second doll of my neighborhood, the final outer nesting doll is the city of Chicago. Even though I’ve grown up in the suburbs, my family often frequents the city on weekends for the exciting food scenes and cultural offerings of a major metropolitan area. We’ll drive an hour just to get good Korean food in Andersonville, a restaurant my parents have gone to since I was two. The city, while a public domain, is not my home town, but it feels like home. There’s the NoMi rooftop where we’ve celebrated graduations and big moments or even walked around the West Loop for an iconic Parlor Pizza Bar ice cream taco. Leaving for my freshman year of college was not just moving into a new university, but leaving behind all the memories from family, to friends, to the familiarity of areas I knew in exchange for a new food scene.

This new food scene fit awkwardly around me and was not the urban or suburban one of my childhood, it was a bit more sprawled . Within the first week of school, a stereotypical freshman circle formed atop the grass, just like the ones that look like stock photos on every college brochure. We sat around passing around pizza boxes, and when I opened the grease stained white box for Imo’s Pizza, what I found inside was unfamiliar. The cheese extended all the way to the edges of the crust rendering it invisible, while also looking soft and white. This was nothing like the Neapolitan-style pizza I had eaten with my friends, nor a greasy Friday night pepperoni and mozzarella combination from a non-descript pizza shop; and it certainly wasn't a Chicago-style deep dish. The girl who ordered, unsurprisingly a St. Louis native raved about how we should try the pizza. Yet when I finally did I couldn’t help but stifle a swallow, the Provel tasted artificial and slightly rubbery masking any other flavor that could be found in the sauce. And while the girls on either side of me, fellow Chicago natives, and I shared a laugh, I realized I wasn’t on my home turf. Our shared, common dislike and bonded over our disdain for St.Louis pizza, maybe not the most delicious of food, helped bring us together. Sometimes when you break bread, you don’t always have to finish the whole piece. 

Not every food adventure is a success, but the act of getting involved in your new food scene, while unfamiliar can be exciting. I remember trying Ritz cracker mac and cheese on a Friday night with friends and being in utter bliss, even as my fingers began to swell up from all the salt. Never had I tasted something so buttery with the nuttiness from the white cheddar, and a béchamel that was smooth as velvet, and crunchy Ritz cracker confetti. I found comfort food in a rendition of something I already knew. Sometimes food adventures were unexpected, like taro bao at the local Chinese restaurant, or cantaloupe and black pepper ice cream from Clementine’s creamery, but they were always acts I did with other people. Just as each restaurant in my hometown was a place not only for food but memories, I had the opportunity to try a blank slate of food places and form new friendships.

Transferring to school back in Chicago, I’m definitely excited to be back into my Nesting Dolls of familiar food scenes. I know for a fact I’ll have to sneak some Sunday night dinners back at home with my Mom’s Japanese curry or even help her toss a salad for nostalgia sake, but there will also be a plethora of new restaurants. I’ll be living in a new college town, and with that and new people I meet trying local coffee shops, getting acclimated to new favorite spots, and introducing my parents to my new favorite places. 

As a transfer student from the area, I’ll have the unique experience of being shown around the college town by others who know the best spot for a late night grilled cheese or amazing rooftop views. Simultaneously only a train ride away from downtown I can be both a tour guide and a tourist, trying new restaurants or taking friends back to old favorites.

All in all, a food scene is exactly what the phrase entails. It’s the restaurants, cooking experiences, or local favorite dishes of your area. However, it’s also the experiences surrounding the food: who you’re eating with —enjoying a meal with new friends at a new restaurant, talking about classes, or sharing dinner with your family — that turn food into a scene. The college experience offers the unique opportunity to grow your food scene Nesting Dolls, not erase what once was — but add a new layer to what already was there.