Every time I’m asked about my favorite meal, I have a different answer. Some days it will be mashed potatoes, or maybe meatloaf or fried chicken. Yesterday it was tacos. Ask me 30 times and I can give you 30 different “favorite” meals.
I used to think that I had such a hard time choosing because I love food, which I do, but I’m starting to realize that it’s more than just that. When I think about mashed potatoes I remember all the times I used them to mask the taste of the peas I was forced to eat. When I think about meatloaf I see myself mixing the meat with my hands while my mother pours in more ingredients. When I think about fried chicken or tacos I hear laughter and mocking, because my brother never could figure out how to eat them without making a colossal mess.
This question is so hard for me, because how could I choose just one? Ever since I was little, food has been a huge part of my life. The center of my grandmother’s house is the kitchen. You can’t get to the living room, or onto the porch, without first passing through the kitchen, and you can’t do that without eating a piece of cake or a cookie. Every birthday, holiday and sometimes just because, we gather together to eat a meal. Everyone makes or buys something to add to the table; my brothers set up the “kids’” table in the living room or on the porch and we all say grace, even from different rooms.
Even on normal nights, meals are important. When I was little I was always jealous of my friends who could eat in front of the TV or in their bedroom. They were allowed to eat pizza or mac-and-cheese for dinner, and they were allowed to have soda every night.
Not me. I had to sit at the table, eat a well-balanced meal (usually including a vegetable that at least one of us hated), and when we were finished it was my job to clear the table. I hated it, except that I never really did. If I ate in my room, there would be no bread and oil every night. I would miss the conversations and the teasing. Salad would just be a side, and not a rite of passage that you only get when you grow up. I wanted to hate the strictness of dinner time, but I would never have forgave my family if they had loosened the rules when I begged them too.
When I was little, I knew we were a family that ate meals together, and that everyone would bring food to holidays and Sunday brunches; but it wasn’t until I went to college that I realized that food is more than just nutrients and flavor. It’s our language.
When I first moved into my dorm freshman year, I was equipped with enough food to survive the apocalypse. My grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles all gave me food before I left. It wasn’t because they thought I would go hungry (everyone knows I will find a way to eat). No, it was, is, their way to show me that they love me.
The cans of soup said “good luck.” The boxes of Pop-Tarts said “you’ll do great.” The box of tea said “we’ll miss you.” Not literally, but that’s what they said to me. The cookies that show up in the mail every Halloween, and the cupcakes that come in February, help me miss them all just a little bit less.
I have always loved food, but it wasn’t until I started crying over surprise care packages that I realized why. My family is loud and opinionated, crazy and mean. We know how to tease each other and make each other cry. We’re not the best with words, but we do know how to cook. A container of macaroni salad saved just for me is the only "I love you" I need.