For me, growing up in a primarily Italian-American household, there’s nothing more important than having a family table full of food. Every time my mother would have a full fridge, she’d thank God that she was able to provide for her family. Every Sunday, her family would go to church and then come back for a big meal with the Sunday gravy and the pasta and all the other dishes that her family decided to cook. The green backyard that lay behind the now ninety-year-old house was delved by great-grandfather and great-grandmother housed gems like squash blossoms and tomatoes and grapes beneath the verdant foliage.
One of my favorite stories that my mom would always tell me was the Christmas Eve story. It always began at the house, a meal with the grandparents, aunts and uncles, sisters, brothers, and cousins. Seven courses, hours spent at the table. Then they’d trudge out into whatever Mother Nature had to offer at that season, whether it be snow, rain, or just the frozen whispers of the cold on their cheeks on their way to Church.
Their return route was no less merry, for they’d find a bounty of desserts and other food to greet them on the return. Finally, the anticipation would decrease as the excitement was soon bartered in its place as the gifts would appear from family members everywhere. Even the next day, after the only remnants of the jubilant feast remained in their memories, a feast of smaller proportions would follow.
Decades ebbed by, family members aged, passed on, moved, and the feasts gave way to the arrow of time. However, my mother still keeps the traditions alive in her own modified way, as the scaled version of the family, consisting of my dad, her, and myself, would sit down to a holiday feast, full of seven courses, always different year to year, always carefully planned and prepped for weeks. This always signified the close and open of the year for me, a mark representing the end of winter break.
Though these meals connected me with my family, there were others, that connected me with other aspects of my identity. Having been adopted from Viet Nam, many times throughout the year, I’d remember having spending special occasions at the Little Saigon restaurant where I’d eat Pho Ga and talk to the owner, a fellow soul who remained one of the few real connections to my former country. My parents, especially my dad who was a Viet Nam War vet, would love to take me there to expose me to the world I once knew and to foster a link to another part of myself.
These are some of the fond moments that I always can think back upon as I reminisce about important moments. Sometimes it seems a wholly foreign idea now that I’ve been away at college for two years now. There have been days where I’ve had one meal stretched out across three days and others I’m barely focusing on the food that passes through each swipe.
Most college students know that eating and meals are as inconsistent as their professor’s scribbled, handwritten notes that if they saw on the paper you carefully, painstakingly rushed 5 minutes before their class they’d mark off a ton of points for illegibility. Sometimes it’s a lack of time, others a lack of funding. More often than others, irregular, on-the-go schedules make meals a last-minute thought. On the other hand, it’s one of the things we all look forward to the most when going home, during breaks, on weekends, or whenever it fits in.
Though my meal swipes generally dictate my food choices for the year, there are a few times that I splurge and I’m able to eat beyond the dining hall milieu. One of the first times that I ventured out alone as a Freshman, I went to eat at this Vietnamese restaurant outside of College Ave. I remember timidly going in, trying to avoid seeming hopelessly out of place or awkward. After sitting down and ordering from a very familiar set of options, I felt more at ease, and grew bolder in the fact that I could eat alone in the midst of a crowded restaurant while others I knew desperately searched for people to eat with for fear of eating alone, or ate alone but quickly, occupying themselves with their phones.
I felt stronger being able to eat by myself, not caring if I was being watched or had someone there with me. Times after that, I would frequent by myself or with friends, sharing a meal with them and sometimes introducing them to the cuisine, which I’d been intimately acquainted with for years.
Moving into an apartment last summer, I recall being alone for quite a large span of time, adjusting to the difference in dorm life to having an apartment. I’d been able to prove to myself that I could be self-sufficient enough to work for my rent and food, buy groceries and transport them home blocks away without a car to ease the travel by foot with six or seven bags, cleaning, living with roommates, managing a budget, and yet one thing that still eluded me was cooking meals.
One of my very first endeavors was making pancakes, and without proper cooking tools and an overall sense of what I was supposed to be doing, I ended up severely burning and deforming them (though with all due respect, my other friend who does make great pancakes burned quite a number of the ones he made at my place because the cooking tools weren’t the best for the situation). I remember being on the phone with longtime high school friend stressing that I wasn’t able to make something simple like a pancake so how would I be able to take care of myself for a whole summer. Here’s some photographic evidence of my utter pancake failure.
But… I pulled through and within the week I was making numerous meals and proving to myself that I was competent enough to survive.
Now that I’m back at the dorm and I’m living off of meal swipes and immersed in the midterm season and work, meals are less frequent and less desired. But there are still times, like as I write this article, where I find myself amongst friends, struggling together as we work. Its past 3 a.m., we’ve been at our study space for hours, and we stop to eat a couple of microwave Ramen bowls. Simple and crammed, but we still join together to eat something in the darkest of hours and study times.
These memories induce the phrase “moveable feast,” popularized by Ernest Hemingway in his memoir of the same name. “Moveable feast” originally referred to any religious holiday or observance that did not have a fixed date every calendar year (like Easter). For me, this phrase seems more apparent now than ever before, having a tri-fold meeting in college. Meals can bring you beyond the bounds of normal time and space, as a “moveable feast” does not naturally obey the calendar. Sometimes a strong memory can jolt you into the past, or a potent dish could evoke a very strong link to the present or propel you through time as you wait hopefully for a meal in the future, marking time in its own way.
Like Hemingway’s Paris, college is a moveable feast because the memories you make with people, usually centered around food at some point, will move with you throughout your four or five or however many years you choose to study at college. It is also a moveable feast because you move from experience to experience, from friend group to friend group, from situation to situation. It is a celebration that constantly moves however you guide it.
So whether you are breaking bread with family, studying over a bowl of Ramen with some friends, or eating by yourself, find a meal that is a celebration, your very own moveable feast.