This article was originally published in the World Orphans Fall Insight Magazine 2018.
“What’s it like in the US?” she says with eager eyes and a smile on her face.
She sets the fried plantains in front of me, and my mouth immediately begins to water. Fixated on the food, I forget about the unanswered question hanging in the air between us.
Realizing the food she has spent hours cooking is already captivating me, she laughs and says, “Did you hear me?”
She wants to know what meals are like in the US, and she is curious about the value Americans place on meals and eating in general. When traveling internationally, I have often found that a cultural phenomenon will be explained to me, and then the person will ask about the difference between my culture and theirs. But I don’t know what to tell her.
My mind starts racing with images of families gathered around Thanksgiving tables piled high with turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I think about fathers swinging through fast food drive-through windows in minivans overflowing with cleats, soccer balls, and backpacks. I picture kitchens filled with mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and every type of dessert imaginable on every baking sheet, pie plate, and casserole dish in the house.
The food we eat and the way we consume it is often dictated by a cornucopia of circumstances—season of life, cultural and ethnic tradition, and geographic location. And in the melting pot of the US, those circumstances are vastly and beautifully different. I realize that I cannot speak for others, but I can share my own experiences with her. I invite her to take a stroll down memory lane with me.
As a child, I did not crave nutritional value, but rather warmth, familiarity, and some good old fashioned carbohydrates: my dad’s Saturday morning pancakes that were bigger and fluffier than everyone else’s, warm grilled cheese sandwiches that you had to patiently allow to cool long enough to not burn your tongue—a true exercise in self-restraint, and burritos that were soft on the inside and perfectly crunchy on the corners. These were some of my treasured, simple favorites.
As I begin to describe these different foods to her, I’m reminded of other foods that carry far more vivid memories, and I realize that the food we eat is only partially about the food. What makes food memorable, and even delicious, is often the people with which we consume that food.
I take her back to a West Virginia fall when the leaves are transformed with hues of red, yellow, and orange, and I’m just waking up from a nap. I walk down the hallway of my childhood home to see my grandmother and my mom stirring bowls of cookie dough—the scent of mouth-watering chocolate already wafting through the air. Photo albums are spread across the living room floor, where they had previously been reliving their memories. This place lives on in my mind—this place where my mother and my grandmother stand entrenched between photo albums and sheets of newspaper covered by tiny cookies. With one bite of a warm, chocolate, no-bake cookie, I’m a sleep-eyed eight-year-old child again.
Where I ate meals varied, particularly dependant on season of life. I can recall seasons when sweet moments gathered around food were frequent and precious, as well as seasons when we shoved food quickly into our faces before rushing to the next activity or event. Some seasons were spent at the dinner table with all four of us—my mom, my dad, my sister, and I—gathered around, eating food and discussing that day’s events. In busier seasons, particularly in the height of sports, play practices, and other school activities, food would be passed from the driver’s seat to the backseat—fries, roast beef sandwiches, milkshakes, or burgers.
I remember food being a way that people loved each other. Whether ushering in a new life or saying goodbye to one, friends, family, and members of our church would show up with honey-glazed ham, a casserole, or a crockpot of soup. And that’s how I learned that “I care about you,” can taste like a home-cooked meal.
While I’ve been reminiscing about the food of my childhood, I realize I haven’t told her about what food means to me today. I explain to her that my husband and I recently moved to a location in West Virginia that is more rural than the community in which I was raised. In the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, bluegrass music nights at local churches welcome both local residents and guests. Summer afternoons and evenings are spent playing in creeks and rivers, and hospitality and good food are tightly linked.
Within a month of moving, our neighbor greeted us with homemade blackberry jam—carefully made from blackberries she had picked herself. The language of hospitality here is wrapped up in both sustenance and a love for the earth. You don’t leave someone’s house hungry. Here, people garden tomatoes, peppers, corn, and greens. They forage for blackberries, raspberries, mushrooms, and ramps. They hunt wildlife and raise livestock. And when you’re invited into these homes or welcomed to the neighborhood, you reap the benefits in jars of jam, homemade pasta sauce, and honey.
In the midst of all my talking, I realize I haven’t yet eaten the food placed in front of me. I pick up a fried plantain and take a bite, grateful that it isn’t cold yet. The salty, fried, mildly sweet taste is just one of my favorite parts of Haiti. I could be served fried plantains anywhere, but in my mind, I will always be right here in this room with her, telling stories about our childhood, laughing about the day’s events, and sharing stories of our hopes and dreams.
As I reach for another plantain, I look at her and say, “Thank you for making this incredible food. It’s delicious.”
Her face illuminates with pride, as she says, with a hint of nostalgia, “I cook the way my mama taught me.”