Tuesday, June 18, 2024

What expats crave from home: Miracle Whip, cheddar cheese, Twizzlers, peanut butter

We stuff them in our carry-ons, hide them in our checked bags and lie about them on customs forms. And we’re willing to pay extra – 30 or more dollars extra – and risk a really messy suitcase just to be able to bring them back with us to Mexico.

You know what I’m talking about.

Crunchy peanut butter. Miracle Whip. Licorice: red, black and Twizzlers. (So many Twizzlers!) Horseradish. Aged cheddar cheese. Vinegars. Butter. Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate. Grits. (Mentioned more times than you’d imagine.) Sloppy Joe seasoning. Natural body products. Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli. Oh, and candy – lots of different kinds of candy. (We’ll get to that later.)

Turns out nobody’s shy about sharing what they bring back when they go north of the border (NOB), items they can’t find here, and what they just can’t — or don’t want to — live without. Psychologists might say there are deeper reasons, and that these qualify as comfort foods, specific to each of us, our families and where we grew up. (See story below.)

While most of the 800+ people who responded to my post in a handful of expat Facebook groups shared lists of fairly common items, the very first response was, well, surprising.

“Korean gochujang,” wrote Jill from San Pancho, a little town north of Puerto Vallarta.


“It’s a chile paste for a delicious, rice-based Korean dish called bibimbap,” the Evanston, Illinois, native kindly explained.

“Now mind you,” she continued, “10 years ago we had a LONG list of things we had to bring if we wanted them. As a matter of fact, it was so long that we drove back and forth. But now, you can get almost anything.”

That sentiment was echoed by many longtime expat residents of Mexico. Nowadays so much more really is available — grape jelly, Oil of Olay, the aforementioned peanut butter — than, say eight or 10 years ago. And if you live in or near a bigger city, like Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, Cabo, Cancún or Guadalajara, your options are even greater, as Sam’s Club, Costco, Walmart, Home Depot and even Bed, Bath & Beyond have opened up the consumer landscape immensely. Factor in Amazon México and you would think anything and everything you could possibly want would be available here.

Ah, but read on, folks. Mexico, in all her glory, always has a trick up her sleeve.

What the author brought back from a recent trip north.
What the author brought back from a recent trip north.

“We do use Amazon México, but our street address has nothing to do with our location, so we have to ship to someone else’s address, which is inconvenient for everyone,” said Nayarit snowbird Sallie. “It’s often easier to bring stuff from the U.S. than hunt things down in Mexico.”

So what were the most mentioned items? Let’s have a look.

The majority of the hundreds of replies included a multitude of food items. Some quickly established themselves as “Most Popular:” Miracle Whip, Cheez-Its, sweet pickle relish, peanut butter (plain and crunchy), horseradish, molasses (kudos to you brave and dedicated bakers!), sharp cheddar cheese (“One kg per month that we’re here,” shared a Canadian snowbird.)

Canadians were well represented, as evidenced by items like canned salmon, Marmite, “real Canadian maple syrup” and Hawkin’s Cheesies.

“You can pretty much adapt to most things, though,” said longtime snowbird Barb. “I love my life here!”

Certain stores also featured heavily in your answers, with one in particular mentioned over and over.

“Anything from Trader Joe’s!!” exclaimed Linett from Mazatlán, Ann from Baja, Carole from Guanajuato, Katie from Mexico City and many, many others.

The things we miss enough to ferry back in our luggage are many and varied. Wheat Thins, ranch dip mix, McCormick seasonings (especially meat loaf and chile blends), spice blends, Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix, Velveeta, Thai peanut sauce, Ranch Style Doritos, gravy mix, and Lipton, Tetley, Twinings or other quality black tea.

And while food items were by and large what most of you mentioned, high-count, 100% cotton sheets (“I’m a sheet snob,” confessed Eric of Mazatlán), thick, fluffy terrycloth towels and “things from Target” were mentioned often, by both men and women.

“Please post your article,” pleaded a reader from Texas. “I’m wondering if there’s an opportunity to import some of these things and supply retailers.”

Catherine, a Brit who’s been living in Mexico for 10 years, sent a photo of her over-stuffed suitcase brimming with potential contraband.

“Just got back from London and here’s a glimpse of my suitcase contents,” she wrote. “White chocolate features heavily.”

Some people take empty suitcases and fill them with the things they miss.
Some people take empty suitcases and fill them with the things they miss.

Some things were difficult to understand the need for. Taco seasoning. (Believe it or not, this was mentioned more than once.) “Good salsa.” “Crispy taco shells.” “Fiesta brand menudo mix.”

Who are these people, I had to wonder.

“I know it’s crazy to buy Mexican food in the States to bring to Mexico,” explained the menudo-loving five-year resident of Ensenada. “It’s just so easy since spices and chile are all in one package. Lol.”

And other things you may as well forget about: Russet potatoes, collard greens, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, Asian vegetables like pak choi and gai lan (“Trying to find a source for seeds so I can grow ‘em myself,” grumbled a San Miguel resident.)

Ahhh, and candy. So. Much. Candy. York Peppermint Patties, the aforementioned licorice (black, red, Aussie-style) and Twizzlers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, red hots, Butterfingers, Good ‘n’ Plenty. “Candy without chile! Please!” begged a reader with a sweet tooth.

“We do manage to live without them but it would be nice to have them available, without paying double the price they are up north,” sighed a snowbird from Alberta, after sharing her list of a dozen or so items.

Turns out our pets have adjustment anxiety too.

“I’ve been here four years and finding anything reasonably priced for my cats has been a chore,” moaned a reader from San Luis Potosí. “This was echoed by Mérida resident Patricia: “I have spoiled north-of-the-border cats! They will not eat the treats I can occasionally find here. I’ve been mule-ing pounds of the stuff every four months!!”

Everyone has their own priorities as to what they use precious suitcase space to bring back. I know mine changes: one trip it was dark chocolate, in a multitude of forms; another trip bathing suits and underwear. Most recently it was organic salad dressings (yes, really), cotton towels and sheets.

Ann, a Baja resident for 15+ years, shared her method of acquisition.

“As I begin packing to visit my hometown of San Diego, I laugh. I have two suitcases nested together. No clothes. No cosmetics. Nada. When I get there, a trip to Trader Joe’s is No. 1 on my list. Face and body wash, dog treats, and my favorite foods to chow down on while I’m up north. Waiting for me will be a pile of stuff I ordered in advance from Amazon. New pajamas, underwear, cosmetics and vitamins, shower curtains. Those two suitcases will be bulging when I head south again. Trust me!”

Then there were the more, umm, specialty items.

Cheese was frequently mentioned.
Cheese was frequently mentioned.

“Decent inner tubes for my bike tires.” Feminine hygiene products. (“Impossible to find where I am in Mexico so I always stock up when visiting NOB.”) Breast milk storage bags. Certain art / knitting / craft supplies. Ultra-Strength 1000 Tums. Vitamins with readable labels. Shoes in half-sizes. (“PLEASE!”) Pickled okra.

A few things I’m not alone in missing are books, environmentally friendly cleaning products, calendars and greeting cards in English, real Q-Tips. (I brought four boxes back last trip.) And “A dozen real boiled bagels,” mused a reader in Mérida.

Problem-solver Linda of Playa del Carmen decided to try and be the change she wanted to see. Her extensive list included many of the most popular items as well as things like Pillsbury pie crust, Nilla wafers, cellulose sponges, canned green beans and Bisquick.

“I sent Walmart corporate offices a list of 30 items five times,” she sighed. “They didn’t care.”

Ultimately, we all learn to make do with what’s here in tandem with what we can bring down ourselves, learn to make or convince friends and family to bring.

“The longer you live outside your own country the less you miss,” said Holland native Ans. “We’ve lived all over the world and you find replacements, make it yourself or forget about it.”

Janet Blaser of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, has been a writer, editor and storyteller her entire life, and feels fortunate to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. Her work has appeared in numerous travel and expat publications as well as newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, is available on Amazon. Contact Janet or read her blog at whyweleftamerica.com.

Sometimes eating and happiness do go hand-in-hand

We all know how “comfort food” makes us feel better. But why?

Wikipedia defines comfort food as “food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value . . . characterized by its high caloric nature and carbohydrate level. The nostalgia may be specific to an individual, or it may apply to a specific culture.”

That’s it in a nutshell, and explains why so many of us have such strong cravings as we navigate our new lives in a new culture. Familiar foods from our past activate feelings of well-being and emotional security, and take on increased importance for exactly those reasons.

Eat what you crave and feel better.
Eat what you crave and feel better.

Psychology Today adds that “people often use comfort food — food associated with the security of childhood, like Mom’s chicken soup — to treat themselves, both physically and psychologically. Its power may lie primarily in the associations it calls to mind, memories of secure attachment.”

Ultimately, though, eating foods high in fat, sugar or salt just makes us feel better all the way around. Wikipedia weighs in on that too, saying those kinds of foods activate the brain’s reward system, “giving a distinctive pleasure or temporary sense of emotional elevation and relaxation.”

In conclusion, you’re not imagining it: when you’re feeling down eating what you’re craving really will make you feel better. Just remember to do it in moderation!

—Janet Blaser

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