At this point in August, it seems that everyone here is on vacation. I just returned from a trip upstate, though calling it a vacation would be a stretch. I picture a vacation as an escape from reality. You wake up without an alarm, have a leisurely breakfast while you decide what you’re going to do, maybe hit the beach if the weather is nice, and dine al fresco with candles and soft music, fireflies winking in the darkness.
My trip was nothing like that.
It may seem ironic that I left this Island — a place where people spend vast amounts of money and effort to get to — and made the 500-mile trek to Buffalo, my hometown. I’ve only recently stopped mumbling the name of the place when people ask me where I’m from. I always wanted to be from somewhere interesting, and not a nationwide joke for its annual snowfall.
I had a friend who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard; I thought it was the epitome of elegance, though she may have argued that in February.
Some Buffalonians get defensive about their snow, claiming that Rochester and Syracuse get more, but don’t believe it. The last winter I lived there, it snowed 125 inches in December. I decided that humans were not meant to live like this: leaving my office at mid-day for lunch or at the end of the day, shoveling six inches of fresh snow off my windshield each time. And the ever-present gray skies will suck the joy right out of you.
That’s why I only return to Buffalo in the summer. A couple of weeks ago, my son and I went to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. My seven brothers and sisters came from all over the country with their kids, some from places as nice as here, others not so much. We always have fun, laughing and catching up on each other’s lives. And eating.
Buffalo has every kind of food you could want, including the eponymously named famous Buffalo chicken wings. I sent a postcard to a friend that showed a big plate of hot wings with the title, “Breakfast of Champions.” I don’t like chicken wings, but my brothers do. They didn’t eat them for breakfast but they did make a pilgrimage to two different wing joints to feast on the spicy-hot chicken parts that used to be discarded. One brother offered to treat my entire family if we could eat them at the restaurant, instead of take-out because they get soggy as they steam in the Styrofoam container. Who knew?
We ate our way through the week: frozen custard, grilled hot dogs (not boiled), corn on the cob, bacon and cheesy mashed potatoes, “loaded” potato skins and French fries of every kind: batter-dipped, curly fries and sweet potato fries drenched in honey and melted butter. We ate chocolate cake with ganache, jelly-filled doughnuts and glazed crullers, sushi, souvlaki and pad Thai.
And of course, another Buffalo favorite, beef on weck: roast beef au jus topped with horseradish on a roll sprinkled with a mixture of salt and caraway seeds. Its full name is “beef on kummelweck,” believed to be started by a man from the Black Forest region of Germany, transplanted to Buffalo, who baked and sold them to a local pub owner. He thought the salty rolls would make his patrons drink more.
All of these foods were eaten at specific restaurants in the Greater Buffalo area. Buffalonians know how to eat. And it shows.
In the summer, that area is a nice place, as soon as you get over the feeling of being land-locked. They have Lake Erie and the waterfront, but you have to travel to find the vast water that you can see here, almost as soon as you walk out your door.
The first thing I do when I come home is go for a walk around the Heights and remember why I moved to the Island. I stand at the top of the hill overlooking the North Ferry and watch the sailboats glide by, walk through the green shade along Bluff Avenue, admire the windows of Union Chapel illuminated at dusk and past the boats moored in Dering Harbor, as I descend the hill towards home.
Some members of my family still live in Buffalo and always will; it’s where I grew up, so I have good memories. But it’s also the place I left.
I feel like I’m missing a part of myself until I come home.