Emily Smith is a researcher at CNN. She grew up in Cape Town before moving to the United States and recently wrote a South Africa travel guide for CNN Travel.
I remember my first encounter with American food. It was Disney World, Florida, during the June and July school holiday of 1996. My younger sister Helen and I had been begging my dad to take us for years; he’d wanted to wait until we would remember the experience. Aside from the rides and the characters and the heat, the memory of the food we ate will always stick with me.
My dad comes from a conservative Afrikaans background, it’s similar to Dutch. We had red meat, a starch and a vegetable almost every night for dinner growing up. The only time we ate pasta was when he was out of town on business, and heaven forbid there was fish on the menu until a few years ago.
Mom was great at stocking it; there would be cookies and chocolates and hard boiled sweets and packets of chips. Sometimes the hardest part was just deciding. The thing was though, everything was individually sized. Chocolate bars were really two blocks of milky heaven wrapped up for one, and chips came in single-serve bags. So, imagine our delight when we got to Disney World and everything was literally bigger and better.
My parents allowed us to have whatever we wanted to eat on that trip, and it felt like we’d died and gone to food heaven. We had French toast for breakfast that I swear was four times the thickness of normal toast, crusted in cinnamon and dripping in sugary sweet syrup. We had ice cream sandwiches shaped like Mickey Mouse for lunch.
I really cannot express how much we ate, and how much we loved it. Our eyes would grow wide and our pupils would flare standing in line at the food court. We’d never seen portions so huge - pancakes the size of dinner plates, cereal bowls that needed two hands to carry. For three glorious days Helen and I stuffed our faces - my dad's term, not mine. We ate and swam and ate and slept and ate and watched cartoons and repeated the cycle with innocent abandon.
But, by the fourth day, something had changed. Standing in line for lunch I remember hearing myself say something I’d never say at lunch time, “Can I just have a piece of fruit?”
We were desperate for fresh vegetables and non-processed food. Sure, the decadence had been mesmerizing and the memory has clearly stuck with me, but I truly learned the value of fresh food.
Next - what happens when you're hungry for the flavors of home? Emily finds a solution that feeds more than just her stomach.