To me, a big part of Spoon is showing others how food can be so much more than just energy and fuel. Food is family, food is togetherness and food is tied to specific memories in our lives. Coming from a middle-class white family in small-town Ohio, holidays meant meat and potatoes and summer meant barbecues. Those were the foods that connected me to my family. Then I came to college and met three people who completely changed my life: Paige Lester, Gabi Enrique and Wendy Gao (or, as I like to call them, Bear, Gub and Wendle). All three of them came from backgrounds with different roots: Greek, Venezuelan and Chinese, respectively.
Having these three in my life has made me interested in how different cultures use food to bring people together. When I’m at home getting back to my roots by eating beef tenderloin and twice-baked potatoes on Christmas Eve, what’s happening at their homes? I sat down with all of them to discuss what cultural food means to them and how it connects them to their loved ones, even when they’re so far away.
Paige and I braved a high ropes course together during a pre-Wildcat Welcome trip, and she’s been a source of compassion and shared reverence for all things J. Crew ever since. Paige is half-Greek from her mother’s side, and cites spanakopita as the food that makes her feel the closest to her heritage. The traditional Greek pie is made of phyllo dough, spinach and feta cheese with olive oil or butter.
“In my family, it was tradition that my Yiayia (Greek for Grandma) would make this for every holiday that we spent together,” she said. “Greek people like to eat. Now my aunt has taken over the tradition and it is a staple at every family event.”
Family gatherings in my own family mean getting excited about my grandma’s homemade rolls — not quite as exotic as spanakopita, but to me, they mean home.
“If I ever see spanakopita, it reminds me of my family and our Greek traditions,” Paige said. “I think back to Easters spent singing traditional Greek songs [and] I remember my time in Greece learning about the culture and history, but most importantly, I think back to the happy times spent around the kitchen table, rolling dough and chopping spinach, surrounded by my family.”
Despite the fact that we don’t share a Greek heritage, Paige and I can definitely relate in that our families gather and bond around food. Whether it’s rolls or phyllo dough, the most important part of eating is how it connects us to the ones we love and the places we come from.
Gabi and I met within 15 minutes of being on CATalyst together. Tiny but forceful, this girl provides our little group with blunt honesty and fierce love. Both of her parents are native Venezuelans, making her fully Venezuelan.
“Arepas are undoubtedly the recipe that makes me feel closest to my heritage, primarily because I grew up eating [them] nearly every weekend morning for breakfast,” she said. “Everyone in my extended family loves arepas, too, so we often eat arepas when family members are visiting.”
The traditional Venezuelan dish uses masarepa, which is dehydrated corn meal and is available in the Latin aisle of grocery stores in either white or yellow varieties. Arepas are “modifiable to suit everyone’s preferences,” so the ingredients on the inside of this sandwich-like dish can include turkey, ham, cheese, beans, pulled pork or shredded chicken. Gabi was nice enough to recommend a recipe for arepas!
My own family’s sandwich of choice is a little different than arepas, but it’s the same basic concept: my father makes a deli sub that’s customized to everyone’s unique tastes (extra salami for me, extra peppers for my sister).
The best way to describe Wendy is to compare her to Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy: motivated, hardworking, sarcastic and practical, she’s been there for me through just about everything in life. She is Chinese, and she loves to eat more than anyone I’ve ever met (yet somehow remains tinier than anyone I’ve ever met). When it comes to her favorites, she frequently cites her mom’s dumplings.
“It’s more than eating. It’s an experience,” she said. “The thing that makes dumplings so special is how difficult and time-consuming they are to make. Our family usually only makes dumplings for special occasions: holidays and birthdays. [They] signify a special time and a gathering of friends and family.”
Dumplings are made from dough made from scratch and chives (which the Gao’s grow in their backyard!), but can be made with any number of ingredients that you might have around such as chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, and eggs. The important aspect of the dish, however, is “handcrafting each dumpling together.”
The closest comparison to this handcrafted food tradition is “Cookie Baking Day” at my house during the holidays, when we dedicate the whole day to baking cookies and meticulously decorating them (not me — I jut give out the awards for best cookie, ugliest cookie and most festive cookie). The experience of creating food together makes it taste yummier at the table because it was literally made with love.
These girls have taught me a lot over the years, from how to eat a cupcake properly (look it up — it’s life changing) to the benefits of fried rice. But even beyond those things, they’ve proven to me that food is a universal bonding experience: the love I feel over a plate of meat and potatoes is the same kind of love they feel over dinner with their families. Food traverses boundaries, creates links and forges the kind of bonds that no other substance can form.