Confession: I love food.
I love it so much that I should be carrying an extra 25 pounds based purely on my cheese and olive intake.
I have always gravitated to the kitchen. When I’m a guest in someone else’s home, it’s as if a magnetic force pulls me toward the room with the oven. When I was younger, I would run over to my best friend’s house after dinner and sit in her family’s kitchen among the dirty dishes because it made me feel good. Sometimes I even did the dishes. I was an odd kid.
It’s not that I always felt compelled to cook nor to eat; it was enough just to be around food, to be fully immersed in a place centered on the creation of something that sustained another human being.
My mom introduced me to food through her uncomplicated home-cooked meals. She didn’t always have the time or the energy or the will to make it, but she did it. I consider her consistent creation of home-cooked meals to be one her greatest feats as a mother — not to belittle any of her other feats, such as raising me. I bow to any mother who consistently gets dinner on the table.
My mom also threw some pretty kick-ass dinner parties. Back when my bedtime was 8 P.M., I would lie awake listening to the laughter that emanated from her dining room while people carefully pried open salmon papillote. I marveled at the way she could make someone smile with an apple crisp and an antique dessert plate. Even though I didn’t understand it, I delighted in watching peoples’ reactions to her food.
For my mother it seemed food was a vehicle that she used to offer a part of herself to others. She made fresh coffee cake when me or my sisters had friends sleepover. She roasted chicken for the neighbors after they had a baby or lost a parent. She used food to comfort and delight. She used it to bring people together. Being around my mom sparked an urge in me to explore this mystical relationship between food and community.
Later on while I was in college, I spent a semester studying in Sevilla, Spain. I lived with Nani, a sassy Spaniard who raised three children on her own and didn’t take crap from anyone. She yelled at the T.V. She smoked and had a mouth like a sailor. She was unapologetic in the way she lived life. Her cooking reflected the same attitude.
She managed her own business making hand-sewn Flamenco dresses. She would run home during lunch hour and whip up the most insane gazpacho I’d ever tasted. She was a different kind of mom with a different style of cooking that still managed to make me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Her dishes were simple. Her dining room table was small and casual. But the understated furnishings stood in stark contrast to the energy and vibrancy in her food. She encouraged table banter that far outlasted the coffee and fresh oranges we noshed on after dinner.
After college, I lived in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer. The day I arrived at the small village I would call home, Mina, my host mother, read the fear and shock on my face. She sat me down in her kitchen and invited me to help her shuck corn. In her small kitchen with turquoise walls and a wood-burning stole she preformed triage. Instead of a splint, she handed me a dull knife. In place of a bedpan, I got a bucket to collect the kernels.
She taught me how to make tortillas de maize and sopa de gallina indina. Each tortilla, black bean, and fried egg she served carried a little bit of Mina in it. Her round belly, short stature and permanent smile made her loveable; her food made her unforgettable. When I contemplated changing sites due to on-going health issues, it was the moments I spent with Mina in her kitchen that made me pause.
Each woman represents something different for me, but I am inextricably linked to all of them through the moments we shared in the kitchen. It was a linchpin, a place to connect through the communal process of creating something bigger than us.
In moments of pure, unadulterated joy and heavy, low-hanging sadness, the kitchen has always been the place where I’ve found sattva, a lucidity, an equilibrium. The acts of eating and cooking serve a guidepost to mark what matters most: the people with whom we most long to connect and cherish.