Have you ever had a Greek woman cook for you? Heaven can be found in a ripe tomato in the right hands. Sitting at a worn and faded kitchen table with a cool breeze blowing through, pushing the fresh herbs slowly across the counter, she had me roughly chop onions while our hands talked more than our mouths. Breaking off a small leaf, she waved the mint in front of my face to smell. Mundane moments become magical when you are invited into them.
Whenever I hear someone say white people can’t cook well or white people don’t know how to season their food, I want to grab their faces, pull them close, and say “You only think that because you’ve had the Americanized, bland versions of beloved meals with no seasoning/wrong seasoning, and you haven’t had a friend who knows how to cook willing to cook for you.”
Seriously. I know we tend to crap on white people’s curious food “choices”, *cough* raisins in potato salad *cough*, but I’ve yet to meet a meal my Greek, Albanian, or Italian friends have cooked that I haven’t immediately asked them for the recipe.
What comes out of our mouths is often influenced by what we put into it. Friendships built over meals, or as my Christian upbringing would describe it, breaking bread together are one of the driving forces behind my push for cross-cultural inclusion and an equitable society.
When you can put a name and face to every issue under the sun, you care about the boring policies, the loopholes in the law, the injustices and traumas. You start caring about problems that don’t affect anyone you know because you remember when you didn’t care about another until your friend shared a story over the table that rattled you to your core. You cannot love someone if you don’t know what nourishes them.
My arms were made to carry other people’s children. We are in the tiny library at the center of the school. The bookshelves are half-filled, half-empty, but the space is standing room only. Graying hair and faded carpet fill my tired eyes. This room is crammed with yearning and anxiety, sixty women’s fears and dreams, but not noise. This class is only offered five times a year, and many of us, including me, traveled by two buses this morning. The only man in the room is speaking, and all eyes are focused on him. He is younger than everyone but me. He is livelier than everyone. His voice booms and carries past our heads as he explains paths to citizenship.
In the midst of his discourse, heads suddenly turn as one of the many sleeping babies wakes and begins to wail. We have been here before. When the cries interrupt the class but also fuel the lessons. His mother apologetically gets him out of her carrier, and the other women all nod their heads in understanding. We have been here before. When the present interrupts the future but also powers the dreams. He refuses the offered milk and pacifier. Continues screaming until his mother looks exasperated.
Walking quietly to her from the back of the room, I offer my arms with no words, and his mother looks relieved. Cradling him in the crook of my left arm, I grab his carrier and bottle with my right. Weaving back through the women, I step out onto the tiles in the hallway as the heavy door slams behind me. Gently shushing him, I begin walking in small circles and softly singing the last song I remember listening to earlier that day. Within a minute of You’re All I Need To Get By, his eyes are softly drooping. Who knew R&B calms babies down as much as it revs adults up?
Various classes march by, single-file, on their way to the gym, cafeteria, recess, or other specials. I’ve tutored almost every child that passes, and they all point and smile at the sleeping baby resting on my chest. When the class is over, I return him to his mother who offers a flowing stream of words Gracias por cuidar a mi bebé. Eres un ángel. Gracias. Que dios te bendiga.
I reply with stilted words and a large, warm smile. Feel my tongue and lips stumble over the words in a language I am still learning No hay problema……um…… tu bebé es un……ah….. tesoro y tú eres una gran madre. She envelops me in a hug and another burst of words then leaves out the front door of the school. At the next class, she brings me a large, warm smile and a large, warm plate of empanadas-filled with beef, onions, and potatoes.
Food and cuddles are the way to my heart. I’m like a small child in my simple affections. Cook me food and let me nap on your chest, and we’ll be great friends. I always want to cook. It may not be my most high-end hobby, but I’ve never not wanted to create nourishment for myself and others. Whenever I love people, I want to cook them dinner.
When Sam offhandedly stated that he missed homemade cherry pie because his university’s cafeteria food was horrendous, I baked him one two days later. When Molly, Doug, David, and Andrew in university were going away on break, I made fried chicken, greens, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese and sent them off with leftovers. When Olivia vented about work tiring her out and giving her no time to eat, I brought her pork-chops, broccoli, and biscuits for lunch. Laughed and rubbed her shoulders while she ate.
Four years ago, in a group of friends, we all tried to guess the main three things people knew us for in our friendships. While other’s descriptions were split, mine was unanimous. Food, bear hugs, and encouragement.
Meals are languages to me. They speak of affection in a way no linguist could truly decipher. Why else does your favorite childhood meal have the same inflection as nostalgia? Why else does the first thing you cooked for yourself sound like independence? Why else does a person cooking for you have the same warm tone as I love you?
That’s also why I’ve learned my past three languages (Spanish, Mam, and ASL) and dabbled in others (Italian, Arabic, Mandarin). To me, a homemade meal and your native tongue are two of the smallest ways I can say you are safe with me. you have a home here. you belong.
I still vividly remember a wisp of a girl from when I was teaching. She was constantly wired in our after-school program and annoying the children around her with her weird ways. Staring at their faces, playing with imaginary beetles and butterflies, and laughing for no reason in the middle of class until all the first grade teachers were irked. She was always disheveled and occassionally smelled like urine and neglect. I adored her.
When she saw me tutoring in the hallway after being kicked out of class, she came to our table and interrupted the lesson asking me for food. Looking at my watch, I knew her class wasn’t going to lunch for two more hours so I took her to the staff lounge and quickly heated my lunch. I briefly wondered whether I would get in trouble for giving a child something other than the approved school food, but I decided I couldn’t care less when she scarfed down my homemade stir-fry and chocolate-chip cookies in four minutes.
When we returned to the hallway, the bustle of nearby classrooms and our practiced reading of paragraphs about foxes did not cause her concern. After our thirty minutes was up, I dismissed my three students back to their class and sat with her in my arms. She had folded into my lap and fell soundly asleep on my chest. The instant she had settled into me, I smelled it. The sharp smell of meth coming from her hair in waves kicked almost everything into focus. My fingers scratched down the table as anger scratched down my spirit. Her teacher came out, called for her then saw me.
“If you want, you can wake her up and send her back in.”
“No, I’ll just sit with her for awhile.”
In the past four months, my spirit has yearned to see friends just one more time. I’ve taken to calling them while recreating the meals made for me in happier settings. My mind has played a weird version of the overrated finding myself trips college students try by chasing down another wine bottle in Paris, another crowded fish market in Thailand. I call them and visit. I’ve made gumbo, jambalaya, donuts, orange chicken, sushi, beef stew, Thai shrimp soup, empanadas, roasted lamb, jerky, and more over the past few months. I count the meals in my tracker since March 15 -breakfast, lunch, dinner-336 meals. Two of which I haven’t cooked.
I’ve visited Ana three neighborhoods away while draped across my kitchen table with laughter. We recalled the first time I attempted to make her pupusa and burned the bread, and I reminded her that she had distracted me. This time, we hold our meals up to the camera and sigh because the screen gets steamed up. Conversation cannot happen through fog, natural or otherwise. After our visit, I put my plate in the sink and wished I had been more grateful for those little distractions.
I’ve visited Tejumola states away when I was in a funk, and we both cried into our ofada stew. The last time we ate together two years ago, we’d discussed our heat tolerances on a scale of 1–10. He insisted it was universal. I insisted it depended on the cuisine. I wished he knew I was the child his name was prophesying.
I’ve visited Sanaya in Pakistan while sitting cross-legged on my living room floor and scooping up my nihari with naan. The first time I ate this was when she invited me to meet her family. Her mother saved the last few bits in the pot to be re-used in tomorrow’s dinner, and I wish I knew that yesterday’s nourishment could spice up tomorrow’s.
I’ve visited with friends and talked about the difficulty of finding good goat meat in our cities. Shared that I once searched high and low when I was trying to cook a favorite meal for one of my students as a reward. How I had been ridiculously frustrated that I couldn’t get camel for him. When I brought the food to him at the school, his eyes became as big as the questions we hadn’t yet found a way of answering.
I’ve visited my grandparents as I fry catfish with old hymns humming in the background of my spirit. The cornbread is on the counter, and I am eight years old passing plates down the table. I am twelve years old cooking for my siblings. I am seventeen years old trying to recreate home in my university cafeteria.
I’ve visited no-one but memories of when I wasn’t just an anxious, flailing bag of nerves in a cynical shell through making new meals. The first time I ate tamales, they came on an orange plate as a gift from an older woman from Honduras who wanted to thank me for teaching her grandchildren English that summer. I’d never cooked them before because I instinctively knew I’d never be able to recreate the flavors of gratitude and love. I didn’t, but they were still magical.
The last three weeks, I’ve wanted nothing more than to share food with friends and invite them all around my table. Yes, there’s the depression from *everything*. Yeah, there’s the depression from regrets. (Planned to eat oysters for the first time by the sea when I got out of debt.)
It’s more though. There’s an underlying ache around not being able to snatch a bite from a friend’s plate, bounce a child on my knee and keep their fingers from being burned. The thought that I can’t hand a steaming plate through the phone. The thought that I might never again cook for old friends or break bread with new ones for the first time.
I’ve gone from cooking for 7 family members to cooking for hundreds of friends to cooking for two people and eating by myself most days. I almost always make way too much food, but I’ve gotten the portions right over the past month. I wish I hadn’t gotten the portions right.
Yesterday, I ordered pizza.