One of the biggest questions on my mind these days has revolved around the idea of “home,” especially as I’ve been making the transition to college. Many people might not hesitate to say where their true home is; they spend their entire lives in or near their place of birth. But for me, it’s never really been easy. I was born in Mexico City and lived there until I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of four. I have lots of family and other long-standing relationships connecting me to Mexico, but I don’t have any memories of it being my home. On the other hand, my entire childhood is based in Ohio, but I don’t really have much more connecting me to Cincinnati than my immediate family and some school friends.
I had the opportunity to travel to Mexico City and across many European cities before arriving on campus this fall, and, while waiting in metro stations, airports, restaurants, and really anywhere, I often contemplated this question of where my “home” is. I became acutely aware that my stays in cities like Paris and London were temporary, yet I was taken by surprise when I realized this did not feel much different from my last couple of years in Cincinnati. Maybe I had been mentally preparing for my departure from Cincinnati to college, but this sense of temporality wasn’t new to me.
One summer day, as my return to Cincinnati approached, my mom asked me over the phone if there was any food I wanted to eat for my first dinner back home from Europe. I thought about it for a couple of moments, and then I knew exactly what I was craving: a homemade grilled cheese sandwich. Nothing gourmet, just the timeless combination of a nice, sharp cheddar melted between two thick slices of perfectly toasted sourdough bread, golden-brown thanks to a generous spread of butter.
In the days after our call, my mom made sure she had every single ingredient ready, running out to the grocery store to pick up anything that wasn’t already in our kitchen. She told me this in the car ride from the bus station to our house. While I was lovingly attacked by my dog, excited to see me for the first time in months, my mom stood in the kitchen, preparing the grilled cheese I’d requested.
When I took the first bite, I instantly knew I was home. Much like the scene in “Ratatouille” when the food critic Anton Ego has a flashback to his childhood upon tasting the ratatouille served to him, I remembered all the previous times I had eaten grilled cheese at home. The warm, gooey center of cheese between the buttery, crispy-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside bread slices brought me a sense of inner warmth and joy.
As I was packing for Princeton only three weeks after arriving back in Cincinnati, I thought about how college is also temporary. You go in, you study, and after four or so years you graduate and move on. Maybe you continue your education in graduate school, but you still never return to the undergraduate experience. It’s hard to pack for something that’s temporary. You have to decide what’s worth taking with you and what you can leave behind, knowing that you can return to it at some later point in your life. Eventually, I made all those decisions, and packed my life into a handful of boxes and bags before embarking on the nine-hour road trip to Princeton.
The act of moving is itself hard; packing, traveling, and unpacking leave you tired. And starting a life in a new place is hard as well; establishing new relationships, developing new routines, and making a new home for yourself leave you tired in ways beyond physical fatigue. So you seek out the familiar in the new.
It was a cool September afternoon when I headed to the Mathey dining hall for brunch, as I usually do on the weekend. Between the main dish being served that day not really appealing to me and my finally overcoming any fear of the freshman fifteen, I felt the inclination to head over to the grill. I observed the curly fries (which are the best type of fries served, but that’s a discussion for a future article), the hot dogs, and the hamburgers. Then I saw my inspiration for this piece of writing: the grilled cheese sandwiches.
At first I had my doubts about the quality of this grilled cheese, because, while it may be a rather simple meal, within this simplicity, so much can go wrong. If any ingredient lacks in quality, it shows, as there’s nothing to hide behind in a grilled cheese sandwich. Grill for too long or at too high a temperature, and the bread burns. Grill for not enough time or at too low a temperature, and the cheese doesn’t sufficiently melt. Still, I cast any doubts aside, trusted the cooks, and placed a grilled cheese sandwich on my empty plate.
After finding a place to sit down, I was ready to taste the sandwich. I took one bite, and just like a few weeks earlier, I flashed back to all the previous times I had eaten grilled cheese sandwiches. I ate every last piece of that sandwich, and if my memory of that day serves me well, I even went back for another half of a sandwich. It may just have been a grilled cheese sandwich, but it made Princeton feel a little bit more like home.