First, a few housekeeping issues. When I first started this blog, my goal was simply to write. I needed confidence to find my voice after an extraordinarily long writing hiatus (we’re talking longer than the Lakers playoffs drought). After pumping out pieces on topics ranging from American Burying Beetles to fixed-limit poker, I’ve felt not only comfortable writing again, but I’ve learned that I’m lucky enough to have a sizable audience on this platform that enjoys my esoteric storytelling.
While I’m going to attempt to keep up the same sort of reflective content, I’m also going to transition a little bit. In the coming posts, I’ll be sharing the content I’ve recently consumed that’s added some sort of value to my life (think podcasts, news articles, movies, etc). Some of it will be tech-related, some law-related, even some cooking-related, but all of it will be screened by me for you. I want to become your newsletter aggregator of sorts, and I’m really hoping the random pockets of information I share might spark thoughts or conversations between you and your friends.
This is going to be a running experiment, so if you guys end up thinking my recommendations are trash, I’ll quickly jettison and go back to the whole storytelling bit. Do hit me an email if you feel particularly strongly about keeping the format the same and remember to please smash that heart button up top and subscribe!
Two weeks ago, I touched on food’s special quality – it possesses a mystical ability to bridge generations in a way that surpasses even language. When we eat, we first taste for the familiar. That dish your mom makes only once every few months? Yeah, the one you look forward to every time you’re back for the holidays. You know what it tastes like, but it’s not until you’re sitting across the table from your mom with the dish in your mouth do you feel its taste. Instantaneously, the dish’s familiarity stimulates all your senses. The dish’s warmth, its crunch, its aroma – you can daydream about it endlessly, but even if you’ve had it 100 times, eating it is an experience that has to be embodied.
The extraordinary thing about food is that its experiential quality is not even just about the food itself, it’s about the people who labored to make that food possible. That dish you love that your mom makes isn’t just made from ingredients; it’s made by someone who utilized their physical energy as the means to create the dish. Cooking is in many ways a recitation of magic — the person in the kitchen draws on their knowledge base and practices alchemy to somehow create a tasty end product via chemical reactions. When you think about it this way, it’s really no surprise that in Shakespearean times, some cooks were regarded as witches.
The magic doesn’t just end here though. When the food finally enters your mouth, you’re consuming an experience that is colored by every prior experience you’ve had. The food can be so powerful that it incites emotionally latent memories of the past, reminding you both of the person who made the dish and the people you’ve been lucky enough to share it with. While I’d be lying if I said I hated the new, avante-garde era of food-gastronomy, I still feel as if the most successful, contemporary restaurants are those that can touch on a familiar experience, and yet spark a new, memorable moment for both you and whom you’re eating with that particular night.
It’s commonly known in the Asian American community that while our parents might never outwardly say I love you, they’ll cut you fruit and tell you to eat. While non-Asian Americans might find this disheartening, I’ve always found it touching. Even though outward gestures of affection are in many cases foreign to our parents, they know for damn sure what made them happy when they were growing up, and that was seeing cut fruit on the table. When our parents give us cut up fruit, they’re taking the best times of their childhood their parents gave to them 30 years ago and transporting it into the present for us.
My girlfriend has written a beautiful piece on what food has meant to her, and she’s been kind enough to allow me to share it below!
My nainai (grandmother on my dad’s side) lives in a relatively remote village in southeast China. She speaks no English. She also speaks close to zero Mandarin, which means we have functionally zero avenues for meaningful communication. I’ve visited her three times in my life, for maybe a cumulative 4 weeks, max.
The first time, I was four. All I really remember from that trip was the shock, first of seeing chickens in my grandma’s tiny yard when I got there, then later of walking downstairs the next morning only to find her clutching a limp chicken (!) by the neck (!!) the same way one would carry a bag of groceries.
I was twelve the second time, and aside from the sticky humid heat, my most vivid memory from that visit is of fish bones, or rather bony fish: multiple plates at every meal, filled with fish that had more bones than meat. But this was the good fish, everyone assured me. I didn’t think much of either trip at the time, being an oblivious toddler the first time and a self-absorbed preteen the next.
The last time I saw her was the summer before college. I remember so much more from this trip, and most distinctly, that she was always feeding me: heaping bowls of thick, chewy noodles bigger than my face, every threeish hours (between-meal snacks, she’d tell my dad to explain to me); the rickety kitchen table, crammed with vegetables and meat (and yes, that bony fish); so much fruit and so many snacks, at all hours of the day. Once, she asked if I wanted an egg; around 20 minutes after I said yes, she brought up a bowl of no less than 6 or 7 hard-boiled eggs.
It’s hard to put into words why this means so much to me. After all, maybe it’s just basic hospitality—you bring the best to your guests, especially if they’re your son’s family who you haven’t seen in years. But maybe, it’s because it’s such a familiar expression of love—from a woman I never really knew and will never really know. You’re my granddaughter, her noodle soup says, and I love you, even though we’ve never known each other, and you’re home here. Food has always said so much more than words ever could, and in my grandmother’s case, it’s maybe the only means for her to express her love.
The reality is that cooking is work—real, tangible labor. One could call it a labor of love, but maybe it’s more accurate to say that this work is love made visible*; cooking and eating are so temporal, so ephemeral, but the work and love that goes into the food lasts long after the last drops of soup have been slurped and the last dumplings have disappeared from the plate.
My mom doesn’t say I’m sorry, but she does grind her own sesame seeds to make me tangyuan at the end of a fight. She doesn’t say I’ll miss you, but without fail, every time I’m about to leave for school again, she springs into action like I’m on a journey to Antarctica and the only food I’ll have is what I bring with me. (When I came back to school this fall, two-thirds of my carry-on space, including my backpack and my suitcase, was filled with frozen mantou.) My dad doesn’t say you’ll be okay, but he does make egg noodle soup at 5am every time I have an early morning flight. Food says you’re home. These are things I can’t, and won’t, forget.
So really, this is a love letter to the people who have cooked for me. To say, thank you, I love you, thank you, not just for the food, but for the love, folded into dumplings pleat by pleat, whipped into pancake batter, and for creating a space that feels like home.
When Christian and I first started dating, my mom would jokingly ask whether I liked him just because he cooked for me. That’s obviously not the (only) reason we’re together, but honestly? Her question doesn’t not make sense. I’m lucky to feel so loved by so many people in so many contexts, but there’s nothing quite like eating food made by someone I love. Food from home—whatever home means—just tastes better, and I think this is why.
As an awful cook, sometimes I feel like this is something I can never really repay or be able to express in the same way. What I can do is eat, which means gaining at least 2 inches on my waistline every time I go back to Seattle. The other thing I can do is at least try to learn while I still can. I have no idea how my grandmother makes her noodles, and I’ll probably never know. But at home when I can, I sit with my mom as she kneads the dough and mixes the fillings—all from scratch—and I can help her make the dumplings (slowly) and roll out the wrappers (very, very, slowly).
I just want her to know that I see and appreciate her labor and her love. And that I’ve never had dumplings that measure up to hers.
*A quote by Khalil Gibran, taken slightly out of context here but I thought it was just shockingly relevant/ well-phrased for what I wanted to say.
I’ll be extremely happy if you managed to make it this far down; I know this week’s piece was a long one, but it was very important to me! As I mentioned before, I was devastated when my grandmother died, and I was extremely hard on myself that I didn’t take the opportunity to learn traditional Filipino recipes from her.
This piece is for you Grandma – while I may never know exactly how you make bilo bilo, I know you left bits and pieces of your knowledge repository in my parents, aunts, and uncles. Your cooking recipes might not be with me right now, but I can still feel how every derivative of your labor has impacted and benefited me today.
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