Home, family, homesickness, and hunger. There's something about being an exchange student that just makes you hungry. You're hungry for new favorite foods. You're hungry for familiar foods from back home. You're hungry for your family.
When I was an exchange student in Denmark, I had little excuse for being hungry in a gnawing stomach sort of way. My family ate upwards of 6 meals a day, so snacking was frowned on. Snacking was completely unnecessary. Snacking was also an illicit pleasure. Sometimes I met another American exchange student and made the rounds of the town's two bakeries. I particularly recall the hindbær snitte (raspberry slices), big triangles of sugar cookie sandwiched with raspberry jam and thinly coated with confectioner's icing. We sneaked those treats between meals--something of a achievement, as those six meals took up most of the day.
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It would be nice to think that I was experiencing that age old adolescent hunger that M.F.K. Fisher described in 'Young Hunger' (included in the anthology The Penguin Book of Food and Drink): "Is there a grown-up person anywhere who cannot remember some such shameful, almost insane act of greediness of his childhood?" Fisher turned to chocolate bars, hungering "...not for one, but for three or four or five at a time, so that I should have enough, for once, in my yawning stomach."
Well, my stomach never got a chance to yawn in Denmark. But by Christmastime, my heart was gaping. I missed my home and my family. I missed the Christmas cookies my mother would be making back in California. And then one day a fruitcake from my aunt arrived in the mail. Growing up, my family rarely had fruitcake. I hadn't given any thought yet to my allegiance. Would I be pro- or anti-fruitcake? I knew nothing of such self-determination yet. All I knew was my aunt back home had thought to send me a cake.
I opened the package in the kitchen, with my host-mother and sisters watching. Out came the fruitcake, all bright red cherries and pecans bound together with a blond stickiness. My host sister, who had been an exchange student the previous year in the U.S. could barely hide her disgust. "You don't like fruitcake, do you?" I mumbled something in response, probably an noncommittal "oh, it's okay". Hanne went on to describe just how horrid fruitcake is to her sister and mother, and I wrapped the cake back up in its box and took it up to my room.
Over the next couple of days, I ate that fruitcake. The whole thing. At first I wasn't crazy about it, but it kind of grew on me. Maybe it just grew in me. Either way, by the time three days had passed, the fruitcake was gone. The next evening, while the family sat together for the sixth and final meal of the day (really just a snack--bread and butter with tea, before bed), my host mother, who hadn't once mentioned the fruitcake, piped up: "When are you going to open the fruitcake and let us taste it?"
If my stomach hadn't been yawning before, it started now; rarely had I felt such hollowness. Instantly I realized that my aunt had surely meant the cake for the whole family, that Hanne never said she didn't want to try the fruitcake, and that my mother was of course curious to sample the cake. I wouldn't have to wait to be a grown-up before remembering that shameful act of insane greediness M.F.K. Fisher spoke of. I knew it right that moment at the kitchen table.
I did the only thing I could. I confessed I'd eaten the whole thing. If I'd been quicker on my feet I might have tried saying I'd lost it, or told them it was moldy. But I was caught unawares. I doubt my family could understand why someone would eat an entire fruitcake in her room, or even why they'd eat fruitcake. But I'm pretty sure that fruitcake fed more than just my stomach, yawning, or not.