Regardless of where you were born, some foods probably stick out in your mind more than others. And when it comes to your earliest food memory, you may still remember what it smelled like, tasted like, and how it made you feel. Maybe this was something as simple as chocolate pudding you had in kindergarten or your grandma’s homemade chicken noodle soup, the smell permeating the air in your childhood home; even thinking about it, you can still smell it right now. And, today, you still may prefer those foods, especially as your go-to comfort foods. And if you were born outside the U.S., the first thing you ate as an American citizen may also stick with you for a lifetime and even help shape your identity.
Renata Castro Alves, immigration attorney and founder of Castro Legal Group, says that there are both legal and personal frontiers to break, and that many aspects of being American are incorporated far ahead from ever becoming a naturalized citizen. However, she thinks nothing is more challenging than adopting American eating tastes and habits.
“It is easy for foreigners to judge American lifestyle choices — having a sandwich for lunch, who else does that? — but the reality is, eating American food is the final frontier to really fitting the mold,” she tells Bustle. “I remember eating American foods, such sweet potato or green bean casseroles, and thinking that in my home country of Brazil, no one would even know what that was. But, at a Christmas party my family attended with my Brazilian mom, I noticed how Americanized I had become when I reached to the Sweet Potato Casserole without hesitation.”
As Castro Alves says, some people consider eating American foods to be the final frontier. Below, 12 women share what they first ate when they became American citizens.
1. Renata, 36
“I am an immigration attorney residing in Florida who was naturalized almost 10 years ago. Right after my naturalization interview, I had the most American meal of all — a Big Mac with a Coke and fries. [...] Nothing is more classic American fanfare than a burger with a Coke and fries.”
2. Shamila, 35-44
“I became an American citizen in 2007, more than a decade after immigrating to America. I celebrated this milestone by eating what, to me, was a quintessentially American meal — a steak burrito bowl from Chipotle with a side of guacamole and chips. Growing up in Kenya, I’d never been exposed to Mexican food. [...] I would consider it authentic American, in the sense that this country has a way of Americanizing ethnic foods. I guess this is why they call America a melting pot: Many different cultures blended into one.”
3. Roman, 31
“I got my citizenship about seven years ago in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to share the special occasion with my sister, as we both got our citizenship on the same day. Honestly, getting my U.S. citizenship was a very bittersweet moment, because it meant I had to give up my Ethiopian citizenship. The first meal I had after the ceremony was Ethiopian food! We went to Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles and treated ourselves to some delicious, comforting Ethiopian food. You can take the girl out of her Ethiopian citizenship, but you can’t take Ethiopian food out of the girl. : )”
4. Martina, 23
“After getting my U.S. citizenship when I was 17 with my dad, my whole family went out to eat at Cafe Madrid, a tapas restaurant in Berkeley. We had tortilla española, olives, gazpacho, croquettes, rice pudding, and espresso coffee. I don’t think we thought anything of it when we picked the restaurant — it was close to the courthouse and had espresso coffee (essential) but, retrospectively, I love that we did not have American food post the ceremony. Feels even more American to me!”
5. Emily, 73
“I’m from Colombia and became an American citizen when I was 69. (I came to be with my son and granddaughter.) Afterwards, I went to Cracker Barrel with my granddaughter, Isabel, and her father/my son, Luis. It was a long time coming, but I felt a sense of accomplishment and like my family was proud of me. It was a big moment for my family back in Colombia and is the biggest accomplishment of my life.”
6. Fabiana, 23
“I became a citizen alongside my mother in 2013. After the ceremony, we went to Red Lobster — because it’s the pinnacle of American ‘high-end’ chain food — and indulged in all the buttery seafood. When in Rome! It was definitely a special moment between my mother and I since we shared in the special moment of going through the ceremony together and then decompressed together under nautical décor and dimmed lighting.”
7. Diana, 35
“After becoming a citizen, I traveled to Charleston, SC to celebrate all weekend. I ate at a very nice restaurant and had seafood. My citizenship made me feel a huge sense of achievement because I could successfully start carving the life I wanted for my family in America.”
8. Adriana, 43
“My parents moved me from Colombia to the U.S. when I was only six months old, so I had a permanent resident card until I was 18. Then, when I turned 18, we drove to Atlanta in order for me to become a U.S. citizen and we ate at [...] a buffet-type place, which was a big treat for me at the time.”
9. Agnes, 33
“When I became an American citizen, I HAD to have an American hot dog with everything on it! When I told them yes, everything, I meant it — but had no idea there would be soooo many things on it — not just mustard, but also onions and relish and peppers, and more! And I was surprised — no ketchup! The hot dog was delicious! Whenever I am having an off day, I think about it and try to go find an all-beef Chicago-style hot dog — with everything on it — wherever I am! It immediately reminds me that I’m happy and proud to be an American and the freedom that goes with it, and my bad mood instantly fades away!”
10. Maria, 31
“New York pizza! I had seen it in American movies all the time, and I couldn’t wait to taste the real thing once I was in America! But I waited until I became a citizen for the big day! And it was worth it!”
11. Juliana, 34
“I went on my lunch break and came right back to work, so I didn’t eat anything in particular. I scarfed down a sandwich and went back to work so I could keep providing for my family. Earning my citizenship was something I’d always dreamed of so, it made me feel proud.”
12. Milana, 45
“My American college professor took me to my first dinner in the U.S., where I ordered three entrees of Mexican food. You see, Russian restaurants are for entertainment, not for eating. (A typical plate is the size of your palm.) I hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours and was starving by the time we got to the restaurant. ‘Are you sure you will be able to eat three entrees?’ my professor asked. ‘YES!’ I immediately replied, ‘I am very hungry.’ In Russia, three entrees would’ve been no problem with how hungry I was. When the waiter brought three plates, each the size of a small tray, I panicked. There were no ‘to go’ boxes in Russia, so I thought all this food would be wasted. Luckily, my professor explained that I could take all this food with me and finish it the next day.”
As you can see, the first foods the women above ate when they became American citizens is something that sticks with them and reminds them of the significance of that day, just as certain foods probably bring back certain memories for you, too. Though food may not seem symbolic, once you think about it, it’s not just meaningful but it can even help shape your identity.