Crust

Issue 1

As food writing and media have become more immediate and accessible, we continue to see how our relationships and individual stories with food have collective meanings that can reach diverse communities. These meanings include how we deal with historical significance, fluid identities, the concept of home, imagined futures, resilient communities, contested definitions, and dealing with illnesses and grief. In Issue 1, we explore these themes through a range of personal narratives and reflections and interviews, all of which go beyond food itself.

Eating is Over

Eating is Over

Back to top

The first time I saw Nour, the upcoming food simulation game by indie developer Tj Hughes, all I could see was a storm of rainbow-colored sprinkles bouncing off of three scoops of ice cream large enough to fill a pink clawfoot tub. At a conference in Portland that took place last fall, St. Louis-based Hughes was invited to preview the game for attendees. Engaging with the game without any directives, points, or plotlines, players mashed buttons on a controller to prompt random changes to photorealistic setpieces: tapioca pearls ricocheted off of a cup of milk tea, a grid of glittering toasters erupted with toasted slices of sandwich bread, and perfectly chubby and browned pancakes appeared from thin air to topple into a glorious mess.

Operating as a solo developer under the pseudonym of Terrifying Jellyfish, Hughes already has two games under his belt that are just as straightforward as Nour. On his website, Hughes writes, “Terrifying Jellyfish is bent on escaping the mediocre and mundane forever through the exorbitant use of color, playfulness, and  a e s t h e t i c s.” By combining his love for pastels and neon with a loving attentiveness to detail, Hughes transports the player to a place outside of reality, where eating your meal is far from the point of it.

At the tail end of 2018, I contacted Hughes via Skype to talk about the artistic inspiration for his project, the appeal of softness, and what we, as eaters and gamers, might learn from a small infusion of culinary chaos.

Tell me how the idea for Nour hatched.

Nour came from a combination of a few different things. First off was me actually having a nice bowl of ramen for the first time and being blown away by all the different elements that were inside of that bowl. There were so many different textures, different flavors, and I thought there was something fun and playful about that. I feel like that’s what makes you play with your food: when you’re just interested in what’s being presented in front of you, when you’re just looking at it from a truly aesthetic viewpoint.

Another inspiration was anime food. Food in Japanese anime is always so lovingly rendered, to a point where it just makes you hungry: the colors, the textures. I just always really appreciated that, and it’s almost like a whole other genre of animation. So I just wanted to know, is this possible to do in 3D? Can you make someone hungry using 3D graphics, colors, textures, gradients?

So you mentioned anime food—what kind of works did you watch? What created those feelings in you?

Oh, Studio Ghibli for sure! If anyone has seen the ramen scene in my game, folks will usually notice that the ham in the bowl is very much inspired by Ponyo. Any food that Studio Ghibli renders is done with so much love… and games could also do that. Food is our source of sustenance and I know it’s often used as health replenishment in games, but I think it’s so much more than just nourishment. A lot of memory and a lot of meaning go into it as well.

As far as my work goes though, there’s no plot to my game or anything. I feel like the love comes through in the fidelity the food’s rendered in. I try hard to make all of the food in the game look really good and really delicious. Even if I’m sacrificing realism—a lot of the food is realistic, but I’ll take liberties here and there just to convey flavors and make it appealing—I just think that that’s where I can inject a little personality into it.

So in your mind, what makes a dish look really appealing? When it comes to your personal aesthetics, what do you look for?

This is a complex one, because this is what the entire game is trying to solve—that is, what makes something look good even if it’s just pixels on a screen? I find that it’s a lot more than just the color alone. Like the shininess: can you see light glisten off the surface of that piece of meat? If it were just dull, it would probably just look like it’s been sitting out at room temperature. There’s so much more to it, like how light interacts with it, or how you can see steam coming off of it. That’s a little touch I put in the ramen scene that a lot of people notice is the threshold: that’s when it makes them hungry. They just notice that really small detail.


Is there a dish or ingredient that you were really looking forward to rendering or that you just especially enjoyed making?

The bubble tea scene was one I was super excited about. One because bubble tea is such a colorful drink. On the surface, the aesthetic qualities are just off the charts! To have the little tapioca balls contrast with the bright pastels of the drink—pink for fruit or purple for taro—I think it’s the most colorful drink. I was so excited to try and render that. It was a very good test of my skills, too, because trying to make milkiness in 3D takes a special technique to be able to do that and have it look like food and not some foggy piece of geometry. It takes a lot of nuance.

Speaking of the bubble tea, I notice that you have a really strong color palette with Nour. Of course when you think of art galleries and museums for instance, they pay a lot of attention to the wall color behind a painting because of how it interacts with the art you’re supposed to focus on. Can you talk a little bit about your choices in that regard?

In the respect of art galleries putting a neutral background behind paintings and things like that, I wanted to give the same level of attention to each scene in Nour. You’ll notice in some scenes there’s just a gradient in the background, maybe from a light blue to a dark blue, or shades of red, or just a completely solid color. That’s inspired by pop art and photography where you’ll have a subject with really bright colors and composition that just focuses on one thing at the center of the frame while the rest of it is a solid color or a really simple gradient.

And also the sense of infinity that is implied by this canvas that just—you know, there are no really rough edges in your scenes outside of the food itself. It’s almost like the idea of heaven: this expanse that’s eternal and soft.

Yeah, yeah, it conveys the softness that I think we need a lot more of in 3D. We’re so fixated on rendering hard objects like steels, concretes, asphalts, things like that. Where is there room for soft breads and gums and other things like that? And that’s really what I’m trying to go for with my 3D work, to fulfill that need for coziness.

So what’s it like for you to watch people play the game for the first time?

I’ve seen a lot of people approach it in different ways, especially among different age groups. I find that kids will come up to it, start playing it, and immediately know what’s going on with it. They’ll start pressing buttons and just being so simply entertained by all the food flying around on the screen. It’s just a moment of joy.

Adults will sometimes do the same but sometimes they’ll approach it timidly and just press one button. They’re not sure what’s gonna happen and they’re not sure if they’re gonna mess something up. But once they see that, no matter what they press, there’s positive feedback, they open up and you can see their timidness melt away. It’s the most satisfying thing. They really just understand in that moment, this is about play—they can express themselves and only do what they want.

That’s really fascinating when you think about it in terms of adulthood, because when we’re adults, our relationship to food changes, too, compared to when we were kids. It gets a lot more neurotic.

Yeah, I see that too. As kids, we’ll play with our food and just be like, “Oh my gosh, the broccoli looks like trees!” We’ll notice all of these small things. And now we’re trying to optimize our diets and make sure all our food is locally sourced… we’re trying to condense our foods into the most efficient thing! We’re putting it in drinks that you can drink to replace an entire meal. I find it interesting, the different approaches to food that there are now.

When I think about your ramen, for example, I think we all dream of having the bowl that’s piled high with chashu, right? In real life you’d end up wasting it or being unable to finish it, but in this game you can actually do that and see what happens.

With Nour, I’m trying to give you the fantasy of abundance as well. There’s an endless supply and it’s OK, it’s not like there are starving children who are gonna be worse off from that. This is the one fantasy land where you can throw your food around and waste it without having to clean up the mess.

I hope that, when playing Nour, folks will feel a bit more satisfied and free to think of food in this way instead of having to just gulp it down as you rush off to work. I’m hoping it’ll provide a space for you to really sit down to look at your food and realize just how weird and awesome it is.

Per Hughes, Nour has a planned release of “sometime in 2019.”

Eating is Over

Eating is Over

Next story

The first time I saw Nour, the upcoming food simulation game by indie developer Tj Hughes, all I could see was a storm of rainbow-colored sprinkles bouncing off of three scoops of ice cream large enough to fill a pink clawfoot tub. At a conference in Portland that took place last fall, St. Louis-based Hughes was invited to preview the game for attendees. Engaging with the game without any directives, points, or plotlines, players mashed buttons on a controller to prompt random changes to photorealistic setpieces: tapioca pearls ricocheted off of a cup of milk tea, a grid of glittering toasters erupted with toasted slices of sandwich bread, and perfectly chubby and browned pancakes appeared from thin air to topple into a glorious mess.

Operating as a solo developer under the pseudonym of Terrifying Jellyfish, Hughes already has two games under his belt that are just as straightforward as Nour. On his website, Hughes writes, “Terrifying Jellyfish is bent on escaping the mediocre and mundane forever through the exorbitant use of color, playfulness, and  a e s t h e t i c s.” By combining his love for pastels and neon with a loving attentiveness to detail, Hughes transports the player to a place outside of reality, where eating your meal is far from the point of it.

At the tail end of 2018, I contacted Hughes via Skype to talk about the artistic inspiration for his project, the appeal of softness, and what we, as eaters and gamers, might learn from a small infusion of culinary chaos.

Tell me how the idea for Nour hatched.

Nour came from a combination of a few different things. First off was me actually having a nice bowl of ramen for the first time and being blown away by all the different elements that were inside of that bowl. There were so many different textures, different flavors, and I thought there was something fun and playful about that. I feel like that’s what makes you play with your food: when you’re just interested in what’s being presented in front of you, when you’re just looking at it from a truly aesthetic viewpoint.

Another inspiration was anime food. Food in Japanese anime is always so lovingly rendered, to a point where it just makes you hungry: the colors, the textures. I just always really appreciated that, and it’s almost like a whole other genre of animation. So I just wanted to know, is this possible to do in 3D? Can you make someone hungry using 3D graphics, colors, textures, gradients?

So you mentioned anime food—what kind of works did you watch? What created those feelings in you?

Oh, Studio Ghibli for sure! If anyone has seen the ramen scene in my game, folks will usually notice that the ham in the bowl is very much inspired by Ponyo. Any food that Studio Ghibli renders is done with so much love… and games could also do that. Food is our source of sustenance and I know it’s often used as health replenishment in games, but I think it’s so much more than just nourishment. A lot of memory and a lot of meaning go into it as well.

As far as my work goes though, there’s no plot to my game or anything. I feel like the love comes through in the fidelity the food’s rendered in. I try hard to make all of the food in the game look really good and really delicious. Even if I’m sacrificing realism—a lot of the food is realistic, but I’ll take liberties here and there just to convey flavors and make it appealing—I just think that that’s where I can inject a little personality into it.

So in your mind, what makes a dish look really appealing? When it comes to your personal aesthetics, what do you look for?

This is a complex one, because this is what the entire game is trying to solve—that is, what makes something look good even if it’s just pixels on a screen? I find that it’s a lot more than just the color alone. Like the shininess: can you see light glisten off the surface of that piece of meat? If it were just dull, it would probably just look like it’s been sitting out at room temperature. There’s so much more to it, like how light interacts with it, or how you can see steam coming off of it. That’s a little touch I put in the ramen scene that a lot of people notice is the threshold: that’s when it makes them hungry. They just notice that really small detail.


Is there a dish or ingredient that you were really looking forward to rendering or that you just especially enjoyed making?

The bubble tea scene was one I was super excited about. One because bubble tea is such a colorful drink. On the surface, the aesthetic qualities are just off the charts! To have the little tapioca balls contrast with the bright pastels of the drink—pink for fruit or purple for taro—I think it’s the most colorful drink. I was so excited to try and render that. It was a very good test of my skills, too, because trying to make milkiness in 3D takes a special technique to be able to do that and have it look like food and not some foggy piece of geometry. It takes a lot of nuance.

Speaking of the bubble tea, I notice that you have a really strong color palette with Nour. Of course when you think of art galleries and museums for instance, they pay a lot of attention to the wall color behind a painting because of how it interacts with the art you’re supposed to focus on. Can you talk a little bit about your choices in that regard?

In the respect of art galleries putting a neutral background behind paintings and things like that, I wanted to give the same level of attention to each scene in Nour. You’ll notice in some scenes there’s just a gradient in the background, maybe from a light blue to a dark blue, or shades of red, or just a completely solid color. That’s inspired by pop art and photography where you’ll have a subject with really bright colors and composition that just focuses on one thing at the center of the frame while the rest of it is a solid color or a really simple gradient.

And also the sense of infinity that is implied by this canvas that just—you know, there are no really rough edges in your scenes outside of the food itself. It’s almost like the idea of heaven: this expanse that’s eternal and soft.

Yeah, yeah, it conveys the softness that I think we need a lot more of in 3D. We’re so fixated on rendering hard objects like steels, concretes, asphalts, things like that. Where is there room for soft breads and gums and other things like that? And that’s really what I’m trying to go for with my 3D work, to fulfill that need for coziness.

So what’s it like for you to watch people play the game for the first time?

I’ve seen a lot of people approach it in different ways, especially among different age groups. I find that kids will come up to it, start playing it, and immediately know what’s going on with it. They’ll start pressing buttons and just being so simply entertained by all the food flying around on the screen. It’s just a moment of joy.

Adults will sometimes do the same but sometimes they’ll approach it timidly and just press one button. They’re not sure what’s gonna happen and they’re not sure if they’re gonna mess something up. But once they see that, no matter what they press, there’s positive feedback, they open up and you can see their timidness melt away. It’s the most satisfying thing. They really just understand in that moment, this is about play—they can express themselves and only do what they want.

That’s really fascinating when you think about it in terms of adulthood, because when we’re adults, our relationship to food changes, too, compared to when we were kids. It gets a lot more neurotic.

Yeah, I see that too. As kids, we’ll play with our food and just be like, “Oh my gosh, the broccoli looks like trees!” We’ll notice all of these small things. And now we’re trying to optimize our diets and make sure all our food is locally sourced… we’re trying to condense our foods into the most efficient thing! We’re putting it in drinks that you can drink to replace an entire meal. I find it interesting, the different approaches to food that there are now.

When I think about your ramen, for example, I think we all dream of having the bowl that’s piled high with chashu, right? In real life you’d end up wasting it or being unable to finish it, but in this game you can actually do that and see what happens.

With Nour, I’m trying to give you the fantasy of abundance as well. There’s an endless supply and it’s OK, it’s not like there are starving children who are gonna be worse off from that. This is the one fantasy land where you can throw your food around and waste it without having to clean up the mess.

I hope that, when playing Nour, folks will feel a bit more satisfied and free to think of food in this way instead of having to just gulp it down as you rush off to work. I’m hoping it’ll provide a space for you to really sit down to look at your food and realize just how weird and awesome it is.

Per Hughes, Nour has a planned release of “sometime in 2019.”

Eating is Over

Eating is Over

Next story

The first time I saw Nour, the upcoming food simulation game by indie developer Tj Hughes, all I could see was a storm of rainbow-colored sprinkles bouncing off of three scoops of ice cream large enough to fill a pink clawfoot tub. At a conference in Portland that took place last fall, St. Louis-based Hughes was invited to preview the game for attendees. Engaging with the game without any directives, points, or plotlines, players mashed buttons on a controller to prompt random changes to photorealistic setpieces: tapioca pearls ricocheted off of a cup of milk tea, a grid of glittering toasters erupted with toasted slices of sandwich bread, and perfectly chubby and browned pancakes appeared from thin air to topple into a glorious mess.

Operating as a solo developer under the pseudonym of Terrifying Jellyfish, Hughes already has two games under his belt that are just as straightforward as Nour. On his website, Hughes writes, “Terrifying Jellyfish is bent on escaping the mediocre and mundane forever through the exorbitant use of color, playfulness, and  a e s t h e t i c s.” By combining his love for pastels and neon with a loving attentiveness to detail, Hughes transports the player to a place outside of reality, where eating your meal is far from the point of it.

At the tail end of 2018, I contacted Hughes via Skype to talk about the artistic inspiration for his project, the appeal of softness, and what we, as eaters and gamers, might learn from a small infusion of culinary chaos.

Tell me how the idea for Nour hatched.

Nour came from a combination of a few different things. First off was me actually having a nice bowl of ramen for the first time and being blown away by all the different elements that were inside of that bowl. There were so many different textures, different flavors, and I thought there was something fun and playful about that. I feel like that’s what makes you play with your food: when you’re just interested in what’s being presented in front of you, when you’re just looking at it from a truly aesthetic viewpoint.

Another inspiration was anime food. Food in Japanese anime is always so lovingly rendered, to a point where it just makes you hungry: the colors, the textures. I just always really appreciated that, and it’s almost like a whole other genre of animation. So I just wanted to know, is this possible to do in 3D? Can you make someone hungry using 3D graphics, colors, textures, gradients?

So you mentioned anime food—what kind of works did you watch? What created those feelings in you?

Oh, Studio Ghibli for sure! If anyone has seen the ramen scene in my game, folks will usually notice that the ham in the bowl is very much inspired by Ponyo. Any food that Studio Ghibli renders is done with so much love… and games could also do that. Food is our source of sustenance and I know it’s often used as health replenishment in games, but I think it’s so much more than just nourishment. A lot of memory and a lot of meaning go into it as well.

As far as my work goes though, there’s no plot to my game or anything. I feel like the love comes through in the fidelity the food’s rendered in. I try hard to make all of the food in the game look really good and really delicious. Even if I’m sacrificing realism—a lot of the food is realistic, but I’ll take liberties here and there just to convey flavors and make it appealing—I just think that that’s where I can inject a little personality into it.

So in your mind, what makes a dish look really appealing? When it comes to your personal aesthetics, what do you look for?

This is a complex one, because this is what the entire game is trying to solve—that is, what makes something look good even if it’s just pixels on a screen? I find that it’s a lot more than just the color alone. Like the shininess: can you see light glisten off the surface of that piece of meat? If it were just dull, it would probably just look like it’s been sitting out at room temperature. There’s so much more to it, like how light interacts with it, or how you can see steam coming off of it. That’s a little touch I put in the ramen scene that a lot of people notice is the threshold: that’s when it makes them hungry. They just notice that really small detail.


Is there a dish or ingredient that you were really looking forward to rendering or that you just especially enjoyed making?

The bubble tea scene was one I was super excited about. One because bubble tea is such a colorful drink. On the surface, the aesthetic qualities are just off the charts! To have the little tapioca balls contrast with the bright pastels of the drink—pink for fruit or purple for taro—I think it’s the most colorful drink. I was so excited to try and render that. It was a very good test of my skills, too, because trying to make milkiness in 3D takes a special technique to be able to do that and have it look like food and not some foggy piece of geometry. It takes a lot of nuance.

Speaking of the bubble tea, I notice that you have a really strong color palette with Nour. Of course when you think of art galleries and museums for instance, they pay a lot of attention to the wall color behind a painting because of how it interacts with the art you’re supposed to focus on. Can you talk a little bit about your choices in that regard?

In the respect of art galleries putting a neutral background behind paintings and things like that, I wanted to give the same level of attention to each scene in Nour. You’ll notice in some scenes there’s just a gradient in the background, maybe from a light blue to a dark blue, or shades of red, or just a completely solid color. That’s inspired by pop art and photography where you’ll have a subject with really bright colors and composition that just focuses on one thing at the center of the frame while the rest of it is a solid color or a really simple gradient.

And also the sense of infinity that is implied by this canvas that just—you know, there are no really rough edges in your scenes outside of the food itself. It’s almost like the idea of heaven: this expanse that’s eternal and soft.

Yeah, yeah, it conveys the softness that I think we need a lot more of in 3D. We’re so fixated on rendering hard objects like steels, concretes, asphalts, things like that. Where is there room for soft breads and gums and other things like that? And that’s really what I’m trying to go for with my 3D work, to fulfill that need for coziness.

So what’s it like for you to watch people play the game for the first time?

I’ve seen a lot of people approach it in different ways, especially among different age groups. I find that kids will come up to it, start playing it, and immediately know what’s going on with it. They’ll start pressing buttons and just being so simply entertained by all the food flying around on the screen. It’s just a moment of joy.

Adults will sometimes do the same but sometimes they’ll approach it timidly and just press one button. They’re not sure what’s gonna happen and they’re not sure if they’re gonna mess something up. But once they see that, no matter what they press, there’s positive feedback, they open up and you can see their timidness melt away. It’s the most satisfying thing. They really just understand in that moment, this is about play—they can express themselves and only do what they want.

That’s really fascinating when you think about it in terms of adulthood, because when we’re adults, our relationship to food changes, too, compared to when we were kids. It gets a lot more neurotic.

Yeah, I see that too. As kids, we’ll play with our food and just be like, “Oh my gosh, the broccoli looks like trees!” We’ll notice all of these small things. And now we’re trying to optimize our diets and make sure all our food is locally sourced… we’re trying to condense our foods into the most efficient thing! We’re putting it in drinks that you can drink to replace an entire meal. I find it interesting, the different approaches to food that there are now.

When I think about your ramen, for example, I think we all dream of having the bowl that’s piled high with chashu, right? In real life you’d end up wasting it or being unable to finish it, but in this game you can actually do that and see what happens.

With Nour, I’m trying to give you the fantasy of abundance as well. There’s an endless supply and it’s OK, it’s not like there are starving children who are gonna be worse off from that. This is the one fantasy land where you can throw your food around and waste it without having to clean up the mess.

I hope that, when playing Nour, folks will feel a bit more satisfied and free to think of food in this way instead of having to just gulp it down as you rush off to work. I’m hoping it’ll provide a space for you to really sit down to look at your food and realize just how weird and awesome it is.

Per Hughes, Nour has a planned release of “sometime in 2019.”

Cooking (and eating) in between worlds

Cooking (and eating) in between worlds

Back to top

When I take to the kitchen, head filled with ramblings of life and hands fidgety and restless that only the balm of stillness can quiet, I am able to touch the sense of peace I’m longing for. Once embedded into the kitchen, the desire to entertain the cognitive tussle of questions in my mind suddenly dissipates.

I have always had a particular relationship with food and cooking, manifested from a desire to understand living and existing in what I see now as an identity: being both a Black American from the Deep South in Atlanta, Georgia, and a first generation Nigerian American.

I struggled with my identity. And it became my lifeforce, what I leaned upon and was most certain of, that type of despairing confusion. I felt at home in my Blackness generally and what it meant to be Southern because I grew up there. But I also felt like a stranger in what it meant to be Nigerian because I’d never set foot on that native land and the distance felt too great to fill all the ceaseless emotional gaps. In totality, I felt as if there was never quite enough of me to rest within either identities that both belonged to me.

There was an aching for groundedness. That was when I chose to cook.

As the eldest child in my family with younger sisters, cooking was mandated, expected, thrust upon me as one of my many roles, being the example setter and keeper of peace being others. In the afternoons before curling up with a novel or finishing up homework, I’d help my mother get dinner on the table. That meant listening as she delegated random tasks—sweep the floor, wipe off the counters with the soapy dish rag, set the table for all of us—or standing side by side, in her shadow, as I tried to soak up all of her culinary knowledge that I admired.

My mother is from Huntsville, Alabama, and the origin of my Southern heritage. Growing up, I spent most of the holidays with her side of the family, feasting on smoked Boston butts, potato salad (with far too much paprika), massive pans of baked beans in the summer months, brown sugar crusted ham, cornbread dressing, collard greens, and chitlins for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Accessing what it meant to be a Black woman from the South was easy for me, instinctual even. This coincidentally means I feel more comfortable and more well versed in cooking Southern dishes than I have ever felt with Nigerian food.

My father is from Lagos, Nigeria. Enugu State to be more precise. When he was in his 20s, he immigrated to Huntsville, where he was an international student at Alabama A&M University. My mother happened to be a student there at the same time.

For most of my life, no matter what elementary, middle or high school classroom I was in or where I attended college or graduate school, no one let me forget I was different from them. But I had the exact same citizenship as they did. They communicated their difference in frowning and pausing when my name was called out, slickly and slyly commenting about my ‘weird’ name or flat-out teasing in many other instances.

Being a Southerner never subjected me to this type of isolation. This sense of wondering what it would take to be accepted as I was, even if it was a mass of nonsensical incongruencies that cultural and ethnic identities often is, plagued and consumed me. Yes, being a Black Southerner was almost easy, so I leaned easiest and intuitively on that. And I tucked away what it meant to be Nigerian unless it made sense. Unless it felt comfortable.

The truth is, it rarely did.

II.

One of my favorite Southern dishes is meatloaf, buttermilk mashed potatoes, skillet cornbread with a touch of sweetness and southern fried cabbage. It’s as much a nostalgic dish as it is a comforting one. You see, each time my family journeyed the four hours from Atlanta to my grandmother’s house in Huntsville, she had that exact meal waiting for us, followed by an utterance that I’d “been coming this way for a long while.” She said this while smiling at me.

Now it’s like muscle memory for me to prepare the beloved meatloaf meal. I can drop the mushy ground beef into the stainless steel mixing bowl and thrash it delicately with my warm hands. Next, on top of the mound of meat, I toss the chopped onion, garlic and parsley, and dust the mixture with kosher salt, ground black pepper, a dash of onion powder, smoked paprika and nutmeg for a surprise kick.

As I mix and meld the mixture, I think about how my mother made it and how her mother made it. Were they happy or sad? Those simple ingredients transition into an actual meal, and there’s a gladness and sadness that arises within me. I am proud of who I am and what I have become. How I’ve been able to learn from both my mother and grandmother. But I also feel remorseful and regretful, and a little ashamed, that I couldn’t learn more about Nigerian food from my father or my late paternal grandmother I never got to meet. That there’s as much yearning and distance as there is a true desire to feel more connected to food I’m supposed to know, behind the vague and surface level knowledge I possess now.

III.

For the past three years I have lived alone. It’s hard to cook Nigerian food for just one person. In its essence it is meant to provide sustenance to several people. I reckon it makes the dutiful amount of labor required to make even the simplest Nigerian dishes worth it in the end. Being able to play the spread on a table amongst a mass of people ready to devour what you made.

I rarely cook Nigerian food. I rarely eat it as well. To make Nigerian food would require endless phone calls to my father and one of my aunts. Lots of online research. Dashing around to African food stores and scratching my head at the unfamiliarity of all the ingredients.

Admitting this makes me feel like such a fraud, but a part of me, a bigger part of me that I’m reticent to accept, still has a long way to go in terms of seeing myself as fully Nigerian. I am still fledging in some other world where I’m still like that small child, hungering for someone to tell me it is okay to be who I am. That I am enough even if I feel confused.

That I am enough even if I cook, and eat, existing in a void between two worlds, the two worlds which don’t intersect except when they are placed next to each other in my name.

Cooking (and eating) in between worlds

Cooking (and eating) in between worlds

Next story

When I take to the kitchen, head filled with ramblings of life and hands fidgety and restless that only the balm of stillness can quiet, I am able to touch the sense of peace I’m longing for. Once embedded into the kitchen, the desire to entertain the cognitive tussle of questions in my mind suddenly dissipates.

I have always had a particular relationship with food and cooking, manifested from a desire to understand living and existing in what I see now as an identity: being both a Black American from the Deep South in Atlanta, Georgia, and a first generation Nigerian American.

I struggled with my identity. And it became my lifeforce, what I leaned upon and was most certain of, that type of despairing confusion. I felt at home in my Blackness generally and what it meant to be Southern because I grew up there. But I also felt like a stranger in what it meant to be Nigerian because I’d never set foot on that native land and the distance felt too great to fill all the ceaseless emotional gaps. In totality, I felt as if there was never quite enough of me to rest within either identities that both belonged to me.

There was an aching for groundedness. That was when I chose to cook.

As the eldest child in my family with younger sisters, cooking was mandated, expected, thrust upon me as one of my many roles, being the example setter and keeper of peace being others. In the afternoons before curling up with a novel or finishing up homework, I’d help my mother get dinner on the table. That meant listening as she delegated random tasks—sweep the floor, wipe off the counters with the soapy dish rag, set the table for all of us—or standing side by side, in her shadow, as I tried to soak up all of her culinary knowledge that I admired.

My mother is from Huntsville, Alabama, and the origin of my Southern heritage. Growing up, I spent most of the holidays with her side of the family, feasting on smoked Boston butts, potato salad (with far too much paprika), massive pans of baked beans in the summer months, brown sugar crusted ham, cornbread dressing, collard greens, and chitlins for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Accessing what it meant to be a Black woman from the South was easy for me, instinctual even. This coincidentally means I feel more comfortable and more well versed in cooking Southern dishes than I have ever felt with Nigerian food.

My father is from Lagos, Nigeria. Enugu State to be more precise. When he was in his 20s, he immigrated to Huntsville, where he was an international student at Alabama A&M University. My mother happened to be a student there at the same time.

For most of my life, no matter what elementary, middle or high school classroom I was in or where I attended college or graduate school, no one let me forget I was different from them. But I had the exact same citizenship as they did. They communicated their difference in frowning and pausing when my name was called out, slickly and slyly commenting about my ‘weird’ name or flat-out teasing in many other instances.

Being a Southerner never subjected me to this type of isolation. This sense of wondering what it would take to be accepted as I was, even if it was a mass of nonsensical incongruencies that cultural and ethnic identities often is, plagued and consumed me. Yes, being a Black Southerner was almost easy, so I leaned easiest and intuitively on that. And I tucked away what it meant to be Nigerian unless it made sense. Unless it felt comfortable.

The truth is, it rarely did.

II.

One of my favorite Southern dishes is meatloaf, buttermilk mashed potatoes, skillet cornbread with a touch of sweetness and southern fried cabbage. It’s as much a nostalgic dish as it is a comforting one. You see, each time my family journeyed the four hours from Atlanta to my grandmother’s house in Huntsville, she had that exact meal waiting for us, followed by an utterance that I’d “been coming this way for a long while.” She said this while smiling at me.

Now it’s like muscle memory for me to prepare the beloved meatloaf meal. I can drop the mushy ground beef into the stainless steel mixing bowl and thrash it delicately with my warm hands. Next, on top of the mound of meat, I toss the chopped onion, garlic and parsley, and dust the mixture with kosher salt, ground black pepper, a dash of onion powder, smoked paprika and nutmeg for a surprise kick.

As I mix and meld the mixture, I think about how my mother made it and how her mother made it. Were they happy or sad? Those simple ingredients transition into an actual meal, and there’s a gladness and sadness that arises within me. I am proud of who I am and what I have become. How I’ve been able to learn from both my mother and grandmother. But I also feel remorseful and regretful, and a little ashamed, that I couldn’t learn more about Nigerian food from my father or my late paternal grandmother I never got to meet. That there’s as much yearning and distance as there is a true desire to feel more connected to food I’m supposed to know, behind the vague and surface level knowledge I possess now.

III.

For the past three years I have lived alone. It’s hard to cook Nigerian food for just one person. In its essence it is meant to provide sustenance to several people. I reckon it makes the dutiful amount of labor required to make even the simplest Nigerian dishes worth it in the end. Being able to play the spread on a table amongst a mass of people ready to devour what you made.

I rarely cook Nigerian food. I rarely eat it as well. To make Nigerian food would require endless phone calls to my father and one of my aunts. Lots of online research. Dashing around to African food stores and scratching my head at the unfamiliarity of all the ingredients.

Admitting this makes me feel like such a fraud, but a part of me, a bigger part of me that I’m reticent to accept, still has a long way to go in terms of seeing myself as fully Nigerian. I am still fledging in some other world where I’m still like that small child, hungering for someone to tell me it is okay to be who I am. That I am enough even if I feel confused.

That I am enough even if I cook, and eat, existing in a void between two worlds, the two worlds which don’t intersect except when they are placed next to each other in my name.

Cooking (and eating) in between worlds

Cooking (and eating) in between worlds

Next story

When I take to the kitchen, head filled with ramblings of life and hands fidgety and restless that only the balm of stillness can quiet, I am able to touch the sense of peace I’m longing for. Once embedded into the kitchen, the desire to entertain the cognitive tussle of questions in my mind suddenly dissipates.

I have always had a particular relationship with food and cooking, manifested from a desire to understand living and existing in what I see now as an identity: being both a Black American from the Deep South in Atlanta, Georgia, and a first generation Nigerian American.

I struggled with my identity. And it became my lifeforce, what I leaned upon and was most certain of, that type of despairing confusion. I felt at home in my Blackness generally and what it meant to be Southern because I grew up there. But I also felt like a stranger in what it meant to be Nigerian because I’d never set foot on that native land and the distance felt too great to fill all the ceaseless emotional gaps. In totality, I felt as if there was never quite enough of me to rest within either identities that both belonged to me.

There was an aching for groundedness. That was when I chose to cook.

As the eldest child in my family with younger sisters, cooking was mandated, expected, thrust upon me as one of my many roles, being the example setter and keeper of peace being others. In the afternoons before curling up with a novel or finishing up homework, I’d help my mother get dinner on the table. That meant listening as she delegated random tasks—sweep the floor, wipe off the counters with the soapy dish rag, set the table for all of us—or standing side by side, in her shadow, as I tried to soak up all of her culinary knowledge that I admired.

My mother is from Huntsville, Alabama, and the origin of my Southern heritage. Growing up, I spent most of the holidays with her side of the family, feasting on smoked Boston butts, potato salad (with far too much paprika), massive pans of baked beans in the summer months, brown sugar crusted ham, cornbread dressing, collard greens, and chitlins for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Accessing what it meant to be a Black woman from the South was easy for me, instinctual even. This coincidentally means I feel more comfortable and more well versed in cooking Southern dishes than I have ever felt with Nigerian food.

My father is from Lagos, Nigeria. Enugu State to be more precise. When he was in his 20s, he immigrated to Huntsville, where he was an international student at Alabama A&M University. My mother happened to be a student there at the same time.

For most of my life, no matter what elementary, middle or high school classroom I was in or where I attended college or graduate school, no one let me forget I was different from them. But I had the exact same citizenship as they did. They communicated their difference in frowning and pausing when my name was called out, slickly and slyly commenting about my ‘weird’ name or flat-out teasing in many other instances.

Being a Southerner never subjected me to this type of isolation. This sense of wondering what it would take to be accepted as I was, even if it was a mass of nonsensical incongruencies that cultural and ethnic identities often is, plagued and consumed me. Yes, being a Black Southerner was almost easy, so I leaned easiest and intuitively on that. And I tucked away what it meant to be Nigerian unless it made sense. Unless it felt comfortable.

The truth is, it rarely did.

II.

One of my favorite Southern dishes is meatloaf, buttermilk mashed potatoes, skillet cornbread with a touch of sweetness and southern fried cabbage. It’s as much a nostalgic dish as it is a comforting one. You see, each time my family journeyed the four hours from Atlanta to my grandmother’s house in Huntsville, she had that exact meal waiting for us, followed by an utterance that I’d “been coming this way for a long while.” She said this while smiling at me.

Now it’s like muscle memory for me to prepare the beloved meatloaf meal. I can drop the mushy ground beef into the stainless steel mixing bowl and thrash it delicately with my warm hands. Next, on top of the mound of meat, I toss the chopped onion, garlic and parsley, and dust the mixture with kosher salt, ground black pepper, a dash of onion powder, smoked paprika and nutmeg for a surprise kick.

As I mix and meld the mixture, I think about how my mother made it and how her mother made it. Were they happy or sad? Those simple ingredients transition into an actual meal, and there’s a gladness and sadness that arises within me. I am proud of who I am and what I have become. How I’ve been able to learn from both my mother and grandmother. But I also feel remorseful and regretful, and a little ashamed, that I couldn’t learn more about Nigerian food from my father or my late paternal grandmother I never got to meet. That there’s as much yearning and distance as there is a true desire to feel more connected to food I’m supposed to know, behind the vague and surface level knowledge I possess now.

III.

For the past three years I have lived alone. It’s hard to cook Nigerian food for just one person. In its essence it is meant to provide sustenance to several people. I reckon it makes the dutiful amount of labor required to make even the simplest Nigerian dishes worth it in the end. Being able to play the spread on a table amongst a mass of people ready to devour what you made.

I rarely cook Nigerian food. I rarely eat it as well. To make Nigerian food would require endless phone calls to my father and one of my aunts. Lots of online research. Dashing around to African food stores and scratching my head at the unfamiliarity of all the ingredients.

Admitting this makes me feel like such a fraud, but a part of me, a bigger part of me that I’m reticent to accept, still has a long way to go in terms of seeing myself as fully Nigerian. I am still fledging in some other world where I’m still like that small child, hungering for someone to tell me it is okay to be who I am. That I am enough even if I feel confused.

That I am enough even if I cook, and eat, existing in a void between two worlds, the two worlds which don’t intersect except when they are placed next to each other in my name.

The Right to Exist

The Right to Exist

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I haven’t eaten in six hours. The intense power walk to the end of the Madrid-Barajas Airport alerted me that I was starting to run on empty. And all I had was an apple and two small muffins for the seven-hour plane ride.

“Please let them have something gluten free on the menu,” I thought as I started rifling through the backseat pocket. An air sickness bag, the safety procedure guide and a Spanish version of Sky Mall sat on my lap, but no menu was to be found. My boyfriend flagged down a flight attendant and asked if there was a menu for us to look at the food options.

“Yes, you’re going to get food,” he replied. He had misunderstood our question.

In broken Spanish, I asked him if they had any food sin gluten, without gluten.

“You would have had to make a request for special food orders at least twenty-four hours in advance,” he stated in a condescending tone. Twenty-four hours ago, we just learned that our vacation was suddenly extended after a delay caused us to miss our connecting flight to New York City.

I felt scolded anyway. This sort of interaction is what I always fear when I go out to eat. The fear that I won’t be believed or will be seen as a burden always adds an element of anxiety to most food related excursions.

In the late winter of 2016, after so much time spent in discomfort and pain post eating, I finally decided to see a doctor about my health issues. I was and still am a fierce lover of carbs, but something indicated that my relationship with them might be the root of my problems. I asked my doctor if she would check for some sort of gluten sensitivity. Some blood work and one upper endoscopy later, I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease known as celiac disease.

This means that my body can’t break down the protein found in gluten. I had severe damage to my small intestines and was not absorbing nutrients from a lot of the food I was eating. This could explain the dramatic weight loss during the past few years. Celiac disease isn’t like other low-risk food allergies. When I eat melon I usually end up with an itchy mouth, but if I pop a Benadryl eventually I will be fine. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the list of long-term health conditions caused by not adhering to a gluten free diet include intestinal cancer, epilepsy and infertility. As someone whose anxiety, another common symptom found in people with celiac, manifests itself through obsessing about my physical health, learning these symptoms was terrifying.

How do you explain to a server that you may get cancer if you have any wheat on your plate? Your server doesn’t want to hear that, they’re busy! No, my throat won’t close up like one with a peanut allergy - you probably won’t even see a reaction. But the reaction is still happening inside of me, a slow attack on my body. I remember working at restaurants myself and internally rolling my eyes at some of the dietary restrictions I had to cater to, including gluten free food. I assumed that it was an obnoxious health fad that the person would abandon the following week but was making my life hard in the moment. Now I was the one making people’s lives harder.

Food is supposed to bring people together, but an invite to a friend’s birthday dinner can have the exact opposite effect for me. I’d much rather stay home where I know I can eat everything. I remember going to a party at a friend’s house and the only thing safe for me to eat were potato chips. Going out late also means I should make sure I’m properly fed beforehand because most establishments that cater to gluten free patrons close by eight p.m. A late-night meal usually ends up being french fries from whatever fast food chain is still open. Despite all of these experiences, two years after my diagnosis, I still find myself not always speaking up when it comes to food planning. Gluten free food is expensive, and even a city as diverse as New York doesn’t have gluten free food at every restaurant. Sometimes a majority of the group wants to go to that new fried chicken restaurant. Or a friend’s popular recipe of brownies doesn’t really work with gluten free flour and they’ve never tried making that way before. As much as I want to eat what everyone else in the room is eating, it can be easier to just say nothing.

As the flight attendant returned his attention to other passengers, I leaned my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder and tried to keep it together. As the stress and frustration of not having much to eat started to set in, a woman sitting behind us leaned in between our seats.

“I heard you guys talking, and I don’t know if it would help, but I have this extra granola bar and it says that it’s gluten free.” As she passed me a Kind Bar, my eyes filled with tears. I was touched by her generosity. I thanked her and then pulled my tiny plane blanket over my head to have a good cry.

Traveling is inherently stressful. When a part of your brain is always working on where your next meal is coming from, it makes the experience even more draining. I felt all that stress overtake me in that moment. I’m twenty-five years old and feel as if I don’t know how to feed myself. How did I get so unlucky to develop this terribly inconvenient disease? Why couldn’t they have a few gluten free friendly meals on hand just in case? Why didn’t I plan better for this? The blame always ping-pongs back and forth, between how I should always plan ahead when eating outside of my comfort zone and the world not being a more accommodating place for people with celiac disease.  

Traveling is inherently stressful. When a part of your brain is always working on where your next meal is coming from, it makes the experience even more draining. I felt all that stress overtake me in that moment.

I often have to explain to people what celiac disease and gluten is. I don’t mind the teaching opportunity but wonder what would life be like if this information was more common knowledge. What if schools had a better curriculum to educate students on the role of food in our society? Not just about allergies and autoimmune diseases, but also about eating disorders and the mental harm their victims are going through or what it’s like to live in an urban food desert or on food stamps. No two people have the same food habits. An awareness of the different types of relationships with food can help us become more empathetic towards those who struggle.

As I remove the blanket, I’m no better than when I went underneath. I eat my apple, my muffins and newly acquired Kind Bar, and wait anxiously to land and get some real food. At JFK, I bypass the small airport delis, already knowing there was nothing for me, and booked it to Chipotle for a rice bowl.

In the couple months since this experience, I’ve taken notice of the times I do speak up about gluten free options when eating out. Sometimes they say no, and the fear of this response overtakes me, then passes and I move on. But sometimes there is a gluten free option; sometimes servers are very accommodating or even have celiac disease themselves and make sure my food is prepared safely. Like the woman on the plane, someone may be there ready to help. These moments reinforce an idea that I struggle with in more than one aspect of my life; I am allowed to exist. I am allowed to have needs and voice them. They may not always be met, but they are still valid. I am allowed to request gluten free alternatives in public spaces or just with friends. It may not be the airline’s fault they didn’t have these options for me, but it’s not my fault either.

But hopefully in the near future, there will be gluten free options available everywhere and it won’t be entirely on the individual alone to adjust their world so that they may eat.

The Right to Exist

The Right to Exist

Next story

I haven’t eaten in six hours. The intense power walk to the end of the Madrid-Barajas Airport alerted me that I was starting to run on empty. And all I had was an apple and two small muffins for the seven-hour plane ride.

“Please let them have something gluten free on the menu,” I thought as I started rifling through the backseat pocket. An air sickness bag, the safety procedure guide and a Spanish version of Sky Mall sat on my lap, but no menu was to be found. My boyfriend flagged down a flight attendant and asked if there was a menu for us to look at the food options.

“Yes, you’re going to get food,” he replied. He had misunderstood our question.

In broken Spanish, I asked him if they had any food sin gluten, without gluten.

“You would have had to make a request for special food orders at least twenty-four hours in advance,” he stated in a condescending tone. Twenty-four hours ago, we just learned that our vacation was suddenly extended after a delay caused us to miss our connecting flight to New York City.

I felt scolded anyway. This sort of interaction is what I always fear when I go out to eat. The fear that I won’t be believed or will be seen as a burden always adds an element of anxiety to most food related excursions.

In the late winter of 2016, after so much time spent in discomfort and pain post eating, I finally decided to see a doctor about my health issues. I was and still am a fierce lover of carbs, but something indicated that my relationship with them might be the root of my problems. I asked my doctor if she would check for some sort of gluten sensitivity. Some blood work and one upper endoscopy later, I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease known as celiac disease.

This means that my body can’t break down the protein found in gluten. I had severe damage to my small intestines and was not absorbing nutrients from a lot of the food I was eating. This could explain the dramatic weight loss during the past few years. Celiac disease isn’t like other low-risk food allergies. When I eat melon I usually end up with an itchy mouth, but if I pop a Benadryl eventually I will be fine. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the list of long-term health conditions caused by not adhering to a gluten free diet include intestinal cancer, epilepsy and infertility. As someone whose anxiety, another common symptom found in people with celiac, manifests itself through obsessing about my physical health, learning these symptoms was terrifying.

How do you explain to a server that you may get cancer if you have any wheat on your plate? Your server doesn’t want to hear that, they’re busy! No, my throat won’t close up like one with a peanut allergy - you probably won’t even see a reaction. But the reaction is still happening inside of me, a slow attack on my body. I remember working at restaurants myself and internally rolling my eyes at some of the dietary restrictions I had to cater to, including gluten free food. I assumed that it was an obnoxious health fad that the person would abandon the following week but was making my life hard in the moment. Now I was the one making people’s lives harder.

Food is supposed to bring people together, but an invite to a friend’s birthday dinner can have the exact opposite effect for me. I’d much rather stay home where I know I can eat everything. I remember going to a party at a friend’s house and the only thing safe for me to eat were potato chips. Going out late also means I should make sure I’m properly fed beforehand because most establishments that cater to gluten free patrons close by eight p.m. A late-night meal usually ends up being french fries from whatever fast food chain is still open. Despite all of these experiences, two years after my diagnosis, I still find myself not always speaking up when it comes to food planning. Gluten free food is expensive, and even a city as diverse as New York doesn’t have gluten free food at every restaurant. Sometimes a majority of the group wants to go to that new fried chicken restaurant. Or a friend’s popular recipe of brownies doesn’t really work with gluten free flour and they’ve never tried making that way before. As much as I want to eat what everyone else in the room is eating, it can be easier to just say nothing.

As the flight attendant returned his attention to other passengers, I leaned my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder and tried to keep it together. As the stress and frustration of not having much to eat started to set in, a woman sitting behind us leaned in between our seats.

“I heard you guys talking, and I don’t know if it would help, but I have this extra granola bar and it says that it’s gluten free.” As she passed me a Kind Bar, my eyes filled with tears. I was touched by her generosity. I thanked her and then pulled my tiny plane blanket over my head to have a good cry.

Traveling is inherently stressful. When a part of your brain is always working on where your next meal is coming from, it makes the experience even more draining. I felt all that stress overtake me in that moment. I’m twenty-five years old and feel as if I don’t know how to feed myself. How did I get so unlucky to develop this terribly inconvenient disease? Why couldn’t they have a few gluten free friendly meals on hand just in case? Why didn’t I plan better for this? The blame always ping-pongs back and forth, between how I should always plan ahead when eating outside of my comfort zone and the world not being a more accommodating place for people with celiac disease.  

Traveling is inherently stressful. When a part of your brain is always working on where your next meal is coming from, it makes the experience even more draining. I felt all that stress overtake me in that moment.

I often have to explain to people what celiac disease and gluten is. I don’t mind the teaching opportunity but wonder what would life be like if this information was more common knowledge. What if schools had a better curriculum to educate students on the role of food in our society? Not just about allergies and autoimmune diseases, but also about eating disorders and the mental harm their victims are going through or what it’s like to live in an urban food desert or on food stamps. No two people have the same food habits. An awareness of the different types of relationships with food can help us become more empathetic towards those who struggle.

As I remove the blanket, I’m no better than when I went underneath. I eat my apple, my muffins and newly acquired Kind Bar, and wait anxiously to land and get some real food. At JFK, I bypass the small airport delis, already knowing there was nothing for me, and booked it to Chipotle for a rice bowl.

In the couple months since this experience, I’ve taken notice of the times I do speak up about gluten free options when eating out. Sometimes they say no, and the fear of this response overtakes me, then passes and I move on. But sometimes there is a gluten free option; sometimes servers are very accommodating or even have celiac disease themselves and make sure my food is prepared safely. Like the woman on the plane, someone may be there ready to help. These moments reinforce an idea that I struggle with in more than one aspect of my life; I am allowed to exist. I am allowed to have needs and voice them. They may not always be met, but they are still valid. I am allowed to request gluten free alternatives in public spaces or just with friends. It may not be the airline’s fault they didn’t have these options for me, but it’s not my fault either.

But hopefully in the near future, there will be gluten free options available everywhere and it won’t be entirely on the individual alone to adjust their world so that they may eat.

The Right to Exist

The Right to Exist

Next story

I haven’t eaten in six hours. The intense power walk to the end of the Madrid-Barajas Airport alerted me that I was starting to run on empty. And all I had was an apple and two small muffins for the seven-hour plane ride.

“Please let them have something gluten free on the menu,” I thought as I started rifling through the backseat pocket. An air sickness bag, the safety procedure guide and a Spanish version of Sky Mall sat on my lap, but no menu was to be found. My boyfriend flagged down a flight attendant and asked if there was a menu for us to look at the food options.

“Yes, you’re going to get food,” he replied. He had misunderstood our question.

In broken Spanish, I asked him if they had any food sin gluten, without gluten.

“You would have had to make a request for special food orders at least twenty-four hours in advance,” he stated in a condescending tone. Twenty-four hours ago, we just learned that our vacation was suddenly extended after a delay caused us to miss our connecting flight to New York City.

I felt scolded anyway. This sort of interaction is what I always fear when I go out to eat. The fear that I won’t be believed or will be seen as a burden always adds an element of anxiety to most food related excursions.

In the late winter of 2016, after so much time spent in discomfort and pain post eating, I finally decided to see a doctor about my health issues. I was and still am a fierce lover of carbs, but something indicated that my relationship with them might be the root of my problems. I asked my doctor if she would check for some sort of gluten sensitivity. Some blood work and one upper endoscopy later, I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease known as celiac disease.

This means that my body can’t break down the protein found in gluten. I had severe damage to my small intestines and was not absorbing nutrients from a lot of the food I was eating. This could explain the dramatic weight loss during the past few years. Celiac disease isn’t like other low-risk food allergies. When I eat melon I usually end up with an itchy mouth, but if I pop a Benadryl eventually I will be fine. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, the list of long-term health conditions caused by not adhering to a gluten free diet include intestinal cancer, epilepsy and infertility. As someone whose anxiety, another common symptom found in people with celiac, manifests itself through obsessing about my physical health, learning these symptoms was terrifying.

How do you explain to a server that you may get cancer if you have any wheat on your plate? Your server doesn’t want to hear that, they’re busy! No, my throat won’t close up like one with a peanut allergy - you probably won’t even see a reaction. But the reaction is still happening inside of me, a slow attack on my body. I remember working at restaurants myself and internally rolling my eyes at some of the dietary restrictions I had to cater to, including gluten free food. I assumed that it was an obnoxious health fad that the person would abandon the following week but was making my life hard in the moment. Now I was the one making people’s lives harder.

Food is supposed to bring people together, but an invite to a friend’s birthday dinner can have the exact opposite effect for me. I’d much rather stay home where I know I can eat everything. I remember going to a party at a friend’s house and the only thing safe for me to eat were potato chips. Going out late also means I should make sure I’m properly fed beforehand because most establishments that cater to gluten free patrons close by eight p.m. A late-night meal usually ends up being french fries from whatever fast food chain is still open. Despite all of these experiences, two years after my diagnosis, I still find myself not always speaking up when it comes to food planning. Gluten free food is expensive, and even a city as diverse as New York doesn’t have gluten free food at every restaurant. Sometimes a majority of the group wants to go to that new fried chicken restaurant. Or a friend’s popular recipe of brownies doesn’t really work with gluten free flour and they’ve never tried making that way before. As much as I want to eat what everyone else in the room is eating, it can be easier to just say nothing.

As the flight attendant returned his attention to other passengers, I leaned my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder and tried to keep it together. As the stress and frustration of not having much to eat started to set in, a woman sitting behind us leaned in between our seats.

“I heard you guys talking, and I don’t know if it would help, but I have this extra granola bar and it says that it’s gluten free.” As she passed me a Kind Bar, my eyes filled with tears. I was touched by her generosity. I thanked her and then pulled my tiny plane blanket over my head to have a good cry.

Traveling is inherently stressful. When a part of your brain is always working on where your next meal is coming from, it makes the experience even more draining. I felt all that stress overtake me in that moment. I’m twenty-five years old and feel as if I don’t know how to feed myself. How did I get so unlucky to develop this terribly inconvenient disease? Why couldn’t they have a few gluten free friendly meals on hand just in case? Why didn’t I plan better for this? The blame always ping-pongs back and forth, between how I should always plan ahead when eating outside of my comfort zone and the world not being a more accommodating place for people with celiac disease.  

Traveling is inherently stressful. When a part of your brain is always working on where your next meal is coming from, it makes the experience even more draining. I felt all that stress overtake me in that moment.

I often have to explain to people what celiac disease and gluten is. I don’t mind the teaching opportunity but wonder what would life be like if this information was more common knowledge. What if schools had a better curriculum to educate students on the role of food in our society? Not just about allergies and autoimmune diseases, but also about eating disorders and the mental harm their victims are going through or what it’s like to live in an urban food desert or on food stamps. No two people have the same food habits. An awareness of the different types of relationships with food can help us become more empathetic towards those who struggle.

As I remove the blanket, I’m no better than when I went underneath. I eat my apple, my muffins and newly acquired Kind Bar, and wait anxiously to land and get some real food. At JFK, I bypass the small airport delis, already knowing there was nothing for me, and booked it to Chipotle for a rice bowl.

In the couple months since this experience, I’ve taken notice of the times I do speak up about gluten free options when eating out. Sometimes they say no, and the fear of this response overtakes me, then passes and I move on. But sometimes there is a gluten free option; sometimes servers are very accommodating or even have celiac disease themselves and make sure my food is prepared safely. Like the woman on the plane, someone may be there ready to help. These moments reinforce an idea that I struggle with in more than one aspect of my life; I am allowed to exist. I am allowed to have needs and voice them. They may not always be met, but they are still valid. I am allowed to request gluten free alternatives in public spaces or just with friends. It may not be the airline’s fault they didn’t have these options for me, but it’s not my fault either.

But hopefully in the near future, there will be gluten free options available everywhere and it won’t be entirely on the individual alone to adjust their world so that they may eat.

The Best Bowl of Pho

The Best Bowl of Pho

Back to top
November 21

We were at Pho Maisonneuve, a restaurant fifteen minutes away from our apartment in Montreal. I had been staring at the menu indecisively. Throughout the day, I had been excited about the veggie pho, the best one I’ve had in several years. When we first tried the restaurant earlier this month, I had been pleasantly surprised by the strong flavors and aromas of lemongrass, cinnamon, and star anise, unlike the watery broths that I had expected. I was even more surprised when the owner - whom I called chu, the literal Vietnamese word for uncle but one I used to connote mister - asked if I wanted the banh canh to be vegetarian as well. His vegetarian soup did not need to be enhanced with hoisin or Sriracha.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the sweet and sour tofu and rice dish. When he was still alive, my father almost always ordered the sweet and sour chicken from a nearby Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t remember the last time he ate that dish. Towards the end of his life, he had trouble swallowing and choked almost after every bite.

My thoughts turned to my own surgery tomorrow. Oral reconstructive surgery, to rebuild my gum and teeth impacted by constant clenching and chronic vomiting. Both caused by anxiety. I already had my first surgery in the spring. It was a long process to rebuild the decay and collapse inside of my mouth. A lot of cutting, sewing, and blood. It had been painful and difficult to enjoy food. But this time, I would be taking the prescribed steroids and painkillers. I was hoping I’d recover quicker.

Simultaneous mental images of my frail father and being on the operating chair sickened me. The familiar anxiety tightening my chest made me feel like I was about to throw up. I hastily took a sip of my ice water. My hand shook slightly.

Chu returned to our table to take our orders. I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese. Chu smiled as he repeated the selection. I looked at his fingers. My husband had first noticed that he was missing the top of his fingers, and wondered if it was from the war.

I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese.

‘You didn’t want pho?’ my husband asked. I had wanted to eat it before my big surgery. It was the last meal before I would have to rest at home and eat soups, puddings, or any soft foods that did not require too much chewing.

‘There’ll be a next time,’ I said, looking at the empty fish tank across from our table. A few people began to trickle into the small restaurant. We were the first ones to arrive. The sports channel was on, but its audio was replaced by the soft music chu had turned on. There were no lyrics, but I recognized the melodies as ‘90s Vietnamese karaoke music. At times, I sang, badly but quietly, along to the music. I watched chu move between the bar and register area, to the kitchen, and to the dining room table. We only ever saw him in the front of house, but we heard a woman’s voice in the kitchen.

‘Here,’ chu said in his soft voice, placing our orders in front of us. My tofu was crispy and golden, but it was my husband’s large bowl of soup that seemed most inviting. I could smell the contrast of sweetness and spice. Chu placed the small dish of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and extra chili peppers. He knew my husband liked his dish extremely spicy.

Cam on,’ I thanked him sincerely. I had suddenly lost my appetite, but tried to eat anyway. The sweet and sour sauce was standard.

‘They must grill the chicken with lemongrass,’ my husband said in wonderment. The broth was so red from the extra pepper, as he had requested. He drank the soup thoughtfully, as if trying to profile all of the ingredients.

‘Is it spicy?’ I asked, chewing slowly. Eating with a retainer in my mouth was difficult.

‘Try some,’ he offered, sliding the bowl towards me. I eagerly took a generous spoonful of the red broth. It was more spicy than I usually liked my soups, but the obvious lemongrass was present. I greedily helped myself to more spoonfuls.

‘It’s a bit sweet,’ my husband continued.

‘Is there some tamarind?’ I asked.

‘Oh! Could be.’

Chu was setting two bowls of pho to the French-speaking diners seated a table away from us. He came back to check on us, and I asked if there was tamarind in his soup. I couldn’t remember the word for tamarind in Vietnamese and tried to articulate its flavors.

‘Tamarind,’ chu repeated, trying to understand my profile description. ‘No. Just the usual spicy sweetness and some citrus.’

‘He’s trying to figure out all of the ingredients in the soup,’ I said. We turned to look at him.

‘Really good,’ my husband said comically, in his poor Vietnamese. Chu laughed and repeated ‘really good’.

‘Are you happy with your meal?’ my husband asked. We were walking home. The sidewalk was still icy, and we were careful to avoid slipping.

‘I should have ordered what I wanted,’ I sighed. ‘Maybe we can go back once I recover.’

Chu reminds me a lot of your dad,’ he said.

‘How so?’

‘Sad and quiet. He doesn’t talk a lot. Only when he has to.’

December 13

We were in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at my family’s house. My father’s room had been redecorated and most of his possessions were gone. Some stored away, some donated. But everything else looked the same. His old vinyl recliner was still in the exact spot it had been almost two years ago.

I wasn’t hungry, but had promised Ma that we would eat lunch with her. For the last month, Ma kept asking what I wanted to eat, what she should cook.

‘Oh, but you just had mouth surgery,’ she’d say. ‘I need to make you something easy to eat. Soup! Eat soup! You’ve been craving pho!’

I told her about Pho Maisonneuve, and how remarkable the broths tasted. That even my husband, who doesn’t like pho, speaks highly of it.

‘Must be made with chicken bones,’ Ma said. When I told her I’ve had both the chicken broth and the veggie version, she exclaimed, ‘you eat non-vegetarian broth? Why didn’t you say so! I don’t like making veggie broth!’

I set a bowl on the wooden table. By habit, I sat on the chair at the left end of the table, where I used to sit next to my father. Because he sat in a wheelchair, it was more accessible to park it at the end of the dining table. An empty chair replaced my father’s spot. I moved to that chair, to face away from his recliner. I found myself staring at the family altar table, where a framed black and white photo of my father was displayed at the corner.

‘Eat,’ Ma said in English. Sitting next to my husband, she explained that she had made really good chicken soup for us.

‘It’s so much food, Ma!’ my husband said. He looked at me in faux horror. Ma had chosen two very large porcelain bowls. His bowl was topped with chicken, and mine with about two pounds of fried tofu.

As Ma chattered happily to my husband, I tried some of my mother’s soup. For the past few years, her soup had been watery, but she attributed it to the tasteless veggies and soup. Her soup that day had been different. Meaty and more savory, but it lacked something. I noticed that she used store bought lettuce, forgoing fresh basil and mint.

‘Is this lettuce, Ma?’ I asked in Vietnamese.

‘It is,’ she responded. ‘I was too lazy to go get fresh greens from the Vietnamese market. And I forgot the bean sprouts. Is it bad? Is that why you’re not eating?’ Ma’s face turned serious. She was looking older and more frail than last year. Her hair was whiter than I remembered. She had more difficulty walking without panting.

‘No, it’s not bad at all, Ma,’ I said.

‘Why aren’t you eating then?’

‘It’s a lot of food, and it’s hard to eat with my…’ I smiled, to show her my retainer. I had a few more surgeries to undergo before I could get rid of it.

‘Are you still in pain?’

‘No, no. Don’t worry about me.’ I took a big bite of my noodles and continued to eat despite a lack of appetite. She seemed satisfied and switched back to English, to continue her conversation with my husband. I ate silently and listened, my gaze often returning to the photo of my father.

The Best Bowl of Pho

The Best Bowl of Pho

Next story
November 21

We were at Pho Maisonneuve, a restaurant fifteen minutes away from our apartment in Montreal. I had been staring at the menu indecisively. Throughout the day, I had been excited about the veggie pho, the best one I’ve had in several years. When we first tried the restaurant earlier this month, I had been pleasantly surprised by the strong flavors and aromas of lemongrass, cinnamon, and star anise, unlike the watery broths that I had expected. I was even more surprised when the owner - whom I called chu, the literal Vietnamese word for uncle but one I used to connote mister - asked if I wanted the banh canh to be vegetarian as well. His vegetarian soup did not need to be enhanced with hoisin or Sriracha.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the sweet and sour tofu and rice dish. When he was still alive, my father almost always ordered the sweet and sour chicken from a nearby Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t remember the last time he ate that dish. Towards the end of his life, he had trouble swallowing and choked almost after every bite.

My thoughts turned to my own surgery tomorrow. Oral reconstructive surgery, to rebuild my gum and teeth impacted by constant clenching and chronic vomiting. Both caused by anxiety. I already had my first surgery in the spring. It was a long process to rebuild the decay and collapse inside of my mouth. A lot of cutting, sewing, and blood. It had been painful and difficult to enjoy food. But this time, I would be taking the prescribed steroids and painkillers. I was hoping I’d recover quicker.

Simultaneous mental images of my frail father and being on the operating chair sickened me. The familiar anxiety tightening my chest made me feel like I was about to throw up. I hastily took a sip of my ice water. My hand shook slightly.

Chu returned to our table to take our orders. I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese. Chu smiled as he repeated the selection. I looked at his fingers. My husband had first noticed that he was missing the top of his fingers, and wondered if it was from the war.

I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese.

‘You didn’t want pho?’ my husband asked. I had wanted to eat it before my big surgery. It was the last meal before I would have to rest at home and eat soups, puddings, or any soft foods that did not require too much chewing.

‘There’ll be a next time,’ I said, looking at the empty fish tank across from our table. A few people began to trickle into the small restaurant. We were the first ones to arrive. The sports channel was on, but its audio was replaced by the soft music chu had turned on. There were no lyrics, but I recognized the melodies as ‘90s Vietnamese karaoke music. At times, I sang, badly but quietly, along to the music. I watched chu move between the bar and register area, to the kitchen, and to the dining room table. We only ever saw him in the front of house, but we heard a woman’s voice in the kitchen.

‘Here,’ chu said in his soft voice, placing our orders in front of us. My tofu was crispy and golden, but it was my husband’s large bowl of soup that seemed most inviting. I could smell the contrast of sweetness and spice. Chu placed the small dish of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and extra chili peppers. He knew my husband liked his dish extremely spicy.

Cam on,’ I thanked him sincerely. I had suddenly lost my appetite, but tried to eat anyway. The sweet and sour sauce was standard.

‘They must grill the chicken with lemongrass,’ my husband said in wonderment. The broth was so red from the extra pepper, as he had requested. He drank the soup thoughtfully, as if trying to profile all of the ingredients.

‘Is it spicy?’ I asked, chewing slowly. Eating with a retainer in my mouth was difficult.

‘Try some,’ he offered, sliding the bowl towards me. I eagerly took a generous spoonful of the red broth. It was more spicy than I usually liked my soups, but the obvious lemongrass was present. I greedily helped myself to more spoonfuls.

‘It’s a bit sweet,’ my husband continued.

‘Is there some tamarind?’ I asked.

‘Oh! Could be.’

Chu was setting two bowls of pho to the French-speaking diners seated a table away from us. He came back to check on us, and I asked if there was tamarind in his soup. I couldn’t remember the word for tamarind in Vietnamese and tried to articulate its flavors.

‘Tamarind,’ chu repeated, trying to understand my profile description. ‘No. Just the usual spicy sweetness and some citrus.’

‘He’s trying to figure out all of the ingredients in the soup,’ I said. We turned to look at him.

‘Really good,’ my husband said comically, in his poor Vietnamese. Chu laughed and repeated ‘really good’.

‘Are you happy with your meal?’ my husband asked. We were walking home. The sidewalk was still icy, and we were careful to avoid slipping.

‘I should have ordered what I wanted,’ I sighed. ‘Maybe we can go back once I recover.’

Chu reminds me a lot of your dad,’ he said.

‘How so?’

‘Sad and quiet. He doesn’t talk a lot. Only when he has to.’

December 13

We were in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at my family’s house. My father’s room had been redecorated and most of his possessions were gone. Some stored away, some donated. But everything else looked the same. His old vinyl recliner was still in the exact spot it had been almost two years ago.

I wasn’t hungry, but had promised Ma that we would eat lunch with her. For the last month, Ma kept asking what I wanted to eat, what she should cook.

‘Oh, but you just had mouth surgery,’ she’d say. ‘I need to make you something easy to eat. Soup! Eat soup! You’ve been craving pho!’

I told her about Pho Maisonneuve, and how remarkable the broths tasted. That even my husband, who doesn’t like pho, speaks highly of it.

‘Must be made with chicken bones,’ Ma said. When I told her I’ve had both the chicken broth and the veggie version, she exclaimed, ‘you eat non-vegetarian broth? Why didn’t you say so! I don’t like making veggie broth!’

I set a bowl on the wooden table. By habit, I sat on the chair at the left end of the table, where I used to sit next to my father. Because he sat in a wheelchair, it was more accessible to park it at the end of the dining table. An empty chair replaced my father’s spot. I moved to that chair, to face away from his recliner. I found myself staring at the family altar table, where a framed black and white photo of my father was displayed at the corner.

‘Eat,’ Ma said in English. Sitting next to my husband, she explained that she had made really good chicken soup for us.

‘It’s so much food, Ma!’ my husband said. He looked at me in faux horror. Ma had chosen two very large porcelain bowls. His bowl was topped with chicken, and mine with about two pounds of fried tofu.

As Ma chattered happily to my husband, I tried some of my mother’s soup. For the past few years, her soup had been watery, but she attributed it to the tasteless veggies and soup. Her soup that day had been different. Meaty and more savory, but it lacked something. I noticed that she used store bought lettuce, forgoing fresh basil and mint.

‘Is this lettuce, Ma?’ I asked in Vietnamese.

‘It is,’ she responded. ‘I was too lazy to go get fresh greens from the Vietnamese market. And I forgot the bean sprouts. Is it bad? Is that why you’re not eating?’ Ma’s face turned serious. She was looking older and more frail than last year. Her hair was whiter than I remembered. She had more difficulty walking without panting.

‘No, it’s not bad at all, Ma,’ I said.

‘Why aren’t you eating then?’

‘It’s a lot of food, and it’s hard to eat with my…’ I smiled, to show her my retainer. I had a few more surgeries to undergo before I could get rid of it.

‘Are you still in pain?’

‘No, no. Don’t worry about me.’ I took a big bite of my noodles and continued to eat despite a lack of appetite. She seemed satisfied and switched back to English, to continue her conversation with my husband. I ate silently and listened, my gaze often returning to the photo of my father.

The Best Bowl of Pho

The Best Bowl of Pho

Next story
November 21

We were at Pho Maisonneuve, a restaurant fifteen minutes away from our apartment in Montreal. I had been staring at the menu indecisively. Throughout the day, I had been excited about the veggie pho, the best one I’ve had in several years. When we first tried the restaurant earlier this month, I had been pleasantly surprised by the strong flavors and aromas of lemongrass, cinnamon, and star anise, unlike the watery broths that I had expected. I was even more surprised when the owner - whom I called chu, the literal Vietnamese word for uncle but one I used to connote mister - asked if I wanted the banh canh to be vegetarian as well. His vegetarian soup did not need to be enhanced with hoisin or Sriracha.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the sweet and sour tofu and rice dish. When he was still alive, my father almost always ordered the sweet and sour chicken from a nearby Chinese restaurant. I couldn’t remember the last time he ate that dish. Towards the end of his life, he had trouble swallowing and choked almost after every bite.

My thoughts turned to my own surgery tomorrow. Oral reconstructive surgery, to rebuild my gum and teeth impacted by constant clenching and chronic vomiting. Both caused by anxiety. I already had my first surgery in the spring. It was a long process to rebuild the decay and collapse inside of my mouth. A lot of cutting, sewing, and blood. It had been painful and difficult to enjoy food. But this time, I would be taking the prescribed steroids and painkillers. I was hoping I’d recover quicker.

Simultaneous mental images of my frail father and being on the operating chair sickened me. The familiar anxiety tightening my chest made me feel like I was about to throw up. I hastily took a sip of my ice water. My hand shook slightly.

Chu returned to our table to take our orders. I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese. Chu smiled as he repeated the selection. I looked at his fingers. My husband had first noticed that he was missing the top of his fingers, and wondered if it was from the war.

I ordered the sweet and sour tofu dish. But I felt a tinge of regret, especially after hearing my husband order pho with chicken in his American-accented Vietnamese.

‘You didn’t want pho?’ my husband asked. I had wanted to eat it before my big surgery. It was the last meal before I would have to rest at home and eat soups, puddings, or any soft foods that did not require too much chewing.

‘There’ll be a next time,’ I said, looking at the empty fish tank across from our table. A few people began to trickle into the small restaurant. We were the first ones to arrive. The sports channel was on, but its audio was replaced by the soft music chu had turned on. There were no lyrics, but I recognized the melodies as ‘90s Vietnamese karaoke music. At times, I sang, badly but quietly, along to the music. I watched chu move between the bar and register area, to the kitchen, and to the dining room table. We only ever saw him in the front of house, but we heard a woman’s voice in the kitchen.

‘Here,’ chu said in his soft voice, placing our orders in front of us. My tofu was crispy and golden, but it was my husband’s large bowl of soup that seemed most inviting. I could smell the contrast of sweetness and spice. Chu placed the small dish of bean sprouts, basil, lime, and extra chili peppers. He knew my husband liked his dish extremely spicy.

Cam on,’ I thanked him sincerely. I had suddenly lost my appetite, but tried to eat anyway. The sweet and sour sauce was standard.

‘They must grill the chicken with lemongrass,’ my husband said in wonderment. The broth was so red from the extra pepper, as he had requested. He drank the soup thoughtfully, as if trying to profile all of the ingredients.

‘Is it spicy?’ I asked, chewing slowly. Eating with a retainer in my mouth was difficult.

‘Try some,’ he offered, sliding the bowl towards me. I eagerly took a generous spoonful of the red broth. It was more spicy than I usually liked my soups, but the obvious lemongrass was present. I greedily helped myself to more spoonfuls.

‘It’s a bit sweet,’ my husband continued.

‘Is there some tamarind?’ I asked.

‘Oh! Could be.’

Chu was setting two bowls of pho to the French-speaking diners seated a table away from us. He came back to check on us, and I asked if there was tamarind in his soup. I couldn’t remember the word for tamarind in Vietnamese and tried to articulate its flavors.

‘Tamarind,’ chu repeated, trying to understand my profile description. ‘No. Just the usual spicy sweetness and some citrus.’

‘He’s trying to figure out all of the ingredients in the soup,’ I said. We turned to look at him.

‘Really good,’ my husband said comically, in his poor Vietnamese. Chu laughed and repeated ‘really good’.

‘Are you happy with your meal?’ my husband asked. We were walking home. The sidewalk was still icy, and we were careful to avoid slipping.

‘I should have ordered what I wanted,’ I sighed. ‘Maybe we can go back once I recover.’

Chu reminds me a lot of your dad,’ he said.

‘How so?’

‘Sad and quiet. He doesn’t talk a lot. Only when he has to.’

December 13

We were in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at my family’s house. My father’s room had been redecorated and most of his possessions were gone. Some stored away, some donated. But everything else looked the same. His old vinyl recliner was still in the exact spot it had been almost two years ago.

I wasn’t hungry, but had promised Ma that we would eat lunch with her. For the last month, Ma kept asking what I wanted to eat, what she should cook.

‘Oh, but you just had mouth surgery,’ she’d say. ‘I need to make you something easy to eat. Soup! Eat soup! You’ve been craving pho!’

I told her about Pho Maisonneuve, and how remarkable the broths tasted. That even my husband, who doesn’t like pho, speaks highly of it.

‘Must be made with chicken bones,’ Ma said. When I told her I’ve had both the chicken broth and the veggie version, she exclaimed, ‘you eat non-vegetarian broth? Why didn’t you say so! I don’t like making veggie broth!’

I set a bowl on the wooden table. By habit, I sat on the chair at the left end of the table, where I used to sit next to my father. Because he sat in a wheelchair, it was more accessible to park it at the end of the dining table. An empty chair replaced my father’s spot. I moved to that chair, to face away from his recliner. I found myself staring at the family altar table, where a framed black and white photo of my father was displayed at the corner.

‘Eat,’ Ma said in English. Sitting next to my husband, she explained that she had made really good chicken soup for us.

‘It’s so much food, Ma!’ my husband said. He looked at me in faux horror. Ma had chosen two very large porcelain bowls. His bowl was topped with chicken, and mine with about two pounds of fried tofu.

As Ma chattered happily to my husband, I tried some of my mother’s soup. For the past few years, her soup had been watery, but she attributed it to the tasteless veggies and soup. Her soup that day had been different. Meaty and more savory, but it lacked something. I noticed that she used store bought lettuce, forgoing fresh basil and mint.

‘Is this lettuce, Ma?’ I asked in Vietnamese.

‘It is,’ she responded. ‘I was too lazy to go get fresh greens from the Vietnamese market. And I forgot the bean sprouts. Is it bad? Is that why you’re not eating?’ Ma’s face turned serious. She was looking older and more frail than last year. Her hair was whiter than I remembered. She had more difficulty walking without panting.

‘No, it’s not bad at all, Ma,’ I said.

‘Why aren’t you eating then?’

‘It’s a lot of food, and it’s hard to eat with my…’ I smiled, to show her my retainer. I had a few more surgeries to undergo before I could get rid of it.

‘Are you still in pain?’

‘No, no. Don’t worry about me.’ I took a big bite of my noodles and continued to eat despite a lack of appetite. She seemed satisfied and switched back to English, to continue her conversation with my husband. I ate silently and listened, my gaze often returning to the photo of my father.

Flavor

Flavor

Back to top

Growing up, I attended a mostly white, private elementary school in Dallas, Texas. I noticed that my tastes seemed misaligned with my classmates and teachers. People here loved deli meat — slippery pieces of ham that came in rubbery, alarmingly wet form, and steak that had been breaded and deep-fried like chicken. They also ate snow-white Alfredo sauce and cloyingly sweet vanilla birthday cake. And they really loved bacon.

There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home. Cumin-coated bits of dal, crisp, tangy dosas, and rosewater-laced gulab jamun did not fit that mold.

There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home.

My mom arrived to the U.S. from New Delhi in 1980, immediately following her arranged marriage to my father. It was her first overseas trip, and she knew very few people here. To feel at home, like many immigrants, she cooked. Aloo gobhi and saag paneer were her comfort foods; and eventually, they became mine as well.

But once I realized that these foods didn’t fit with my classmates’ preferences, I set about changing my tastes in an effort to blend in. I renounced my vegetarianism. I started trading my school lunch for my friend Henry’s turkey and mustard sandwiches. I learned to love the bouncy pumpkin pie and boxed mashed potatoes served at the school cafeteria. I was very aware of how different I was from my classmates: my skin color was darker than everyone else’s, both of my parents worked, and I did not have a closet full of designer clothing. But I felt a deep sense of comfort knowing that, if I couldn’t look or dress like anyone else, at least I could eat like everyone else.

College was similar: mostly upper class white people with fairly similar tastes. Thanks to the dining hall, blending in wasn’t an issue. In one of my French classes, I learned the phrase “à chacun son goût,”  meaning “to each her own taste.” But how could that be, I wondered, when the environments around me - plus every cooking show, food magazine, and popular cookbook  - seemed to present a very singular definition of home cooking. It was like what I saw in elementary school, largely white-washed and not particularly interested in my narrative.

Immediately after graduating, I entered food media looking to change that, to help make a space for the diverse tastes that make up American food. I wrote about the Brussels sprouts tacos made by Daniela Soto-Innes at Atla in New York. And the pakoras made with hot chicken at Maneet Chauhan’s Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville. And the chaat masala-infused grilled cheese sandwich I ate at Preeti Mistry’s (sadly shuttered) Juhu Beach Club in Oakland.

At a certain point, I stopped feeling self-conscious about my taste. That old French adage is true — there is no universal category of good food. As I discovered an increasingly diverse set of cooks making the food of their heritage, I realized that our individual notions of taste have gotten more developed and complex over time. Our tastes vary radically.

This realization led me to write Indian-ish, my upcoming cookbook, which is both a recipe collection and a story about how I came to appreciate — not be ashamed by — how different the food I grew up eating was from my peers. It’s also about how mom’s own tastes have evolved since immigrating here.

She uses olive oil instead of ghee in a lot of her sabzis because she likes the fruity taste. She makes curry leaf and mustard seed encrusted sandwiches with sourdough bread, a varietal that she fell in love with on a trip to California. And one of her favorite soups is ribollita that she spikes with cilantro and green chilies because she loved the one we tried in Tuscany; she adapted the recipe to add a little more heat and intensity. I subtitled my book Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family because I wanted people to understand that we are a part of the American food narrative because we, like everyone else, are Americans. Everyone has a certain sense of what home cooking means. Dal and sabzi happen to be our bread and butter.

I am now a full-fledged member of the food media machine — I write for glossy food magazines and the dining sections of national newspapers. While food writing has certainly changed a lot over the past few years, my profession still has a long way to go in terms of being inclusive with respect to many cuisines and narratives. It still rewards mostly white men who are cooking European food. And if Thai or Mexican food is splashed onto the pages of a magazine, it’s often in the context of a restaurant where the chef is neither Thai nor Mexican.

I am regularly told by editors that my Indian recipes — even ones with five ingredients and only take 20 minutes, like a carrot salad with mustard seeds and curry leaves, or baked potatoes garnished with chaat masala — are too complicated and obscure for the average reader. That it’s too much to ask someone to buy mustard seeds or use cumin seeds, even though both are now readily available in many grocery stores.  The cover stars of most food magazines are still roasted chickens and gleaming plates of pasta.

But I suppose that’s why I am a journalist. To remind myself — and others — that there is no singular taste or set norms around food, and to invite people to diversify their own palates. It’s been said many times: food is a gateway to understanding other perspectives. The more we open our mouths to different ingredients and flavors, the more we might open our minds. The less we might fear the things that don’t fall into our immediate sphere. Or at least, I’d like to think these statements are true.

Over time, I can honestly say that I have developed a soft spot for that bouncy, kind of artificial-tasting pumpkin pie (I love the creamy texture!) and I occasionally snack on the deli meat my boyfriend keeps in our fridge (it’s salty and filling!). Sometimes I’ll even throw some mustard on it.

Although I’ll never understand why people lose their minds over bacon — I now know that feeling is perfectly okay.

Flavor

Flavor

Next story

Growing up, I attended a mostly white, private elementary school in Dallas, Texas. I noticed that my tastes seemed misaligned with my classmates and teachers. People here loved deli meat — slippery pieces of ham that came in rubbery, alarmingly wet form, and steak that had been breaded and deep-fried like chicken. They also ate snow-white Alfredo sauce and cloyingly sweet vanilla birthday cake. And they really loved bacon.

There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home. Cumin-coated bits of dal, crisp, tangy dosas, and rosewater-laced gulab jamun did not fit that mold.

There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home.

My mom arrived to the U.S. from New Delhi in 1980, immediately following her arranged marriage to my father. It was her first overseas trip, and she knew very few people here. To feel at home, like many immigrants, she cooked. Aloo gobhi and saag paneer were her comfort foods; and eventually, they became mine as well.

But once I realized that these foods didn’t fit with my classmates’ preferences, I set about changing my tastes in an effort to blend in. I renounced my vegetarianism. I started trading my school lunch for my friend Henry’s turkey and mustard sandwiches. I learned to love the bouncy pumpkin pie and boxed mashed potatoes served at the school cafeteria. I was very aware of how different I was from my classmates: my skin color was darker than everyone else’s, both of my parents worked, and I did not have a closet full of designer clothing. But I felt a deep sense of comfort knowing that, if I couldn’t look or dress like anyone else, at least I could eat like everyone else.

College was similar: mostly upper class white people with fairly similar tastes. Thanks to the dining hall, blending in wasn’t an issue. In one of my French classes, I learned the phrase “à chacun son goût,”  meaning “to each her own taste.” But how could that be, I wondered, when the environments around me - plus every cooking show, food magazine, and popular cookbook  - seemed to present a very singular definition of home cooking. It was like what I saw in elementary school, largely white-washed and not particularly interested in my narrative.

Immediately after graduating, I entered food media looking to change that, to help make a space for the diverse tastes that make up American food. I wrote about the Brussels sprouts tacos made by Daniela Soto-Innes at Atla in New York. And the pakoras made with hot chicken at Maneet Chauhan’s Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville. And the chaat masala-infused grilled cheese sandwich I ate at Preeti Mistry’s (sadly shuttered) Juhu Beach Club in Oakland.

At a certain point, I stopped feeling self-conscious about my taste. That old French adage is true — there is no universal category of good food. As I discovered an increasingly diverse set of cooks making the food of their heritage, I realized that our individual notions of taste have gotten more developed and complex over time. Our tastes vary radically.

This realization led me to write Indian-ish, my upcoming cookbook, which is both a recipe collection and a story about how I came to appreciate — not be ashamed by — how different the food I grew up eating was from my peers. It’s also about how mom’s own tastes have evolved since immigrating here.

She uses olive oil instead of ghee in a lot of her sabzis because she likes the fruity taste. She makes curry leaf and mustard seed encrusted sandwiches with sourdough bread, a varietal that she fell in love with on a trip to California. And one of her favorite soups is ribollita that she spikes with cilantro and green chilies because she loved the one we tried in Tuscany; she adapted the recipe to add a little more heat and intensity. I subtitled my book Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family because I wanted people to understand that we are a part of the American food narrative because we, like everyone else, are Americans. Everyone has a certain sense of what home cooking means. Dal and sabzi happen to be our bread and butter.

I am now a full-fledged member of the food media machine — I write for glossy food magazines and the dining sections of national newspapers. While food writing has certainly changed a lot over the past few years, my profession still has a long way to go in terms of being inclusive with respect to many cuisines and narratives. It still rewards mostly white men who are cooking European food. And if Thai or Mexican food is splashed onto the pages of a magazine, it’s often in the context of a restaurant where the chef is neither Thai nor Mexican.

I am regularly told by editors that my Indian recipes — even ones with five ingredients and only take 20 minutes, like a carrot salad with mustard seeds and curry leaves, or baked potatoes garnished with chaat masala — are too complicated and obscure for the average reader. That it’s too much to ask someone to buy mustard seeds or use cumin seeds, even though both are now readily available in many grocery stores.  The cover stars of most food magazines are still roasted chickens and gleaming plates of pasta.

But I suppose that’s why I am a journalist. To remind myself — and others — that there is no singular taste or set norms around food, and to invite people to diversify their own palates. It’s been said many times: food is a gateway to understanding other perspectives. The more we open our mouths to different ingredients and flavors, the more we might open our minds. The less we might fear the things that don’t fall into our immediate sphere. Or at least, I’d like to think these statements are true.

Over time, I can honestly say that I have developed a soft spot for that bouncy, kind of artificial-tasting pumpkin pie (I love the creamy texture!) and I occasionally snack on the deli meat my boyfriend keeps in our fridge (it’s salty and filling!). Sometimes I’ll even throw some mustard on it.

Although I’ll never understand why people lose their minds over bacon — I now know that feeling is perfectly okay.

Flavor

Flavor

Next story

Growing up, I attended a mostly white, private elementary school in Dallas, Texas. I noticed that my tastes seemed misaligned with my classmates and teachers. People here loved deli meat — slippery pieces of ham that came in rubbery, alarmingly wet form, and steak that had been breaded and deep-fried like chicken. They also ate snow-white Alfredo sauce and cloyingly sweet vanilla birthday cake. And they really loved bacon.

There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home. Cumin-coated bits of dal, crisp, tangy dosas, and rosewater-laced gulab jamun did not fit that mold.

There seemed to be this universal, objective notion of what tasted good. And what tasted the best to me were the things that my mom, an immigrant from India, exclusively cooked for me at home.

My mom arrived to the U.S. from New Delhi in 1980, immediately following her arranged marriage to my father. It was her first overseas trip, and she knew very few people here. To feel at home, like many immigrants, she cooked. Aloo gobhi and saag paneer were her comfort foods; and eventually, they became mine as well.

But once I realized that these foods didn’t fit with my classmates’ preferences, I set about changing my tastes in an effort to blend in. I renounced my vegetarianism. I started trading my school lunch for my friend Henry’s turkey and mustard sandwiches. I learned to love the bouncy pumpkin pie and boxed mashed potatoes served at the school cafeteria. I was very aware of how different I was from my classmates: my skin color was darker than everyone else’s, both of my parents worked, and I did not have a closet full of designer clothing. But I felt a deep sense of comfort knowing that, if I couldn’t look or dress like anyone else, at least I could eat like everyone else.

College was similar: mostly upper class white people with fairly similar tastes. Thanks to the dining hall, blending in wasn’t an issue. In one of my French classes, I learned the phrase “à chacun son goût,”  meaning “to each her own taste.” But how could that be, I wondered, when the environments around me - plus every cooking show, food magazine, and popular cookbook  - seemed to present a very singular definition of home cooking. It was like what I saw in elementary school, largely white-washed and not particularly interested in my narrative.

Immediately after graduating, I entered food media looking to change that, to help make a space for the diverse tastes that make up American food. I wrote about the Brussels sprouts tacos made by Daniela Soto-Innes at Atla in New York. And the pakoras made with hot chicken at Maneet Chauhan’s Chauhan Ale and Masala House in Nashville. And the chaat masala-infused grilled cheese sandwich I ate at Preeti Mistry’s (sadly shuttered) Juhu Beach Club in Oakland.

At a certain point, I stopped feeling self-conscious about my taste. That old French adage is true — there is no universal category of good food. As I discovered an increasingly diverse set of cooks making the food of their heritage, I realized that our individual notions of taste have gotten more developed and complex over time. Our tastes vary radically.

This realization led me to write Indian-ish, my upcoming cookbook, which is both a recipe collection and a story about how I came to appreciate — not be ashamed by — how different the food I grew up eating was from my peers. It’s also about how mom’s own tastes have evolved since immigrating here.

She uses olive oil instead of ghee in a lot of her sabzis because she likes the fruity taste. She makes curry leaf and mustard seed encrusted sandwiches with sourdough bread, a varietal that she fell in love with on a trip to California. And one of her favorite soups is ribollita that she spikes with cilantro and green chilies because she loved the one we tried in Tuscany; she adapted the recipe to add a little more heat and intensity. I subtitled my book Recipes and Antics from a Modern American Family because I wanted people to understand that we are a part of the American food narrative because we, like everyone else, are Americans. Everyone has a certain sense of what home cooking means. Dal and sabzi happen to be our bread and butter.

I am now a full-fledged member of the food media machine — I write for glossy food magazines and the dining sections of national newspapers. While food writing has certainly changed a lot over the past few years, my profession still has a long way to go in terms of being inclusive with respect to many cuisines and narratives. It still rewards mostly white men who are cooking European food. And if Thai or Mexican food is splashed onto the pages of a magazine, it’s often in the context of a restaurant where the chef is neither Thai nor Mexican.

I am regularly told by editors that my Indian recipes — even ones with five ingredients and only take 20 minutes, like a carrot salad with mustard seeds and curry leaves, or baked potatoes garnished with chaat masala — are too complicated and obscure for the average reader. That it’s too much to ask someone to buy mustard seeds or use cumin seeds, even though both are now readily available in many grocery stores.  The cover stars of most food magazines are still roasted chickens and gleaming plates of pasta.

But I suppose that’s why I am a journalist. To remind myself — and others — that there is no singular taste or set norms around food, and to invite people to diversify their own palates. It’s been said many times: food is a gateway to understanding other perspectives. The more we open our mouths to different ingredients and flavors, the more we might open our minds. The less we might fear the things that don’t fall into our immediate sphere. Or at least, I’d like to think these statements are true.

Over time, I can honestly say that I have developed a soft spot for that bouncy, kind of artificial-tasting pumpkin pie (I love the creamy texture!) and I occasionally snack on the deli meat my boyfriend keeps in our fridge (it’s salty and filling!). Sometimes I’ll even throw some mustard on it.

Although I’ll never understand why people lose their minds over bacon — I now know that feeling is perfectly okay.

The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking

How two thousand years of resisting colonization produced the world’s greatest modern fusion cuisine.

The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking

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When friends ask me about a Vietnamese restaurant they want to try, I’m still unsure how to answer the question, “Is it authentic?”.

As a Vietnamese-American from Houston who grew up eating traditional food almost daily, I know they typically mean to ask if a restaurant makes Vietnamese food like that of my childhood. Is the pho broth simmered with oxtail overnight, fragrant with anise and cinnamon? Are the eggrolls crackly-crispy with sweet-savory pork inside?

I have no problem describing what Vietnamese food means in this context. Some of my fondest memories revolve around exploring the Vietnamese markets of our sprawling Chinatown, pausing at various storefronts that specialized in a different snack: steamed rice rolls, fried batter and egg, or those French-influenced patê sô puff pastries encasing a beef patty.

I only began to recognize the fallacy of “authentic Vietnamese cuisine” when I first moved to New York, where Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants—heavy in Teochew and Cantonese dishes—were regarded as standard-bearers by local food media. It was unfamiliar to me, but was it not authentic to the ethnic Chinese who’d been in Vietnam for generations?

Then there was northern-style Vietnamese cuisine. On the Vice food channel, Munchies, I found a 2015 video titled “How to Eat Pho: You’ve Been Doing it Wrong”. “Have I really?,” I asked myself, as I watched the older Vietnamese restaurateur dip slices of rare eye round steak in a separate condiment dish before twirling them up with noodles. This is unlike eating pho in Saigon, where people add the sauces directly to the broth.

In a recent Taste story entitled “Why Is Vietnamese Food in America Frozen in the 1970s?”, Vietnamese-American chef and food critic Soleil Ho recounts a similar experience of surprise. In her case, Ho discovered a new contemporary street dish, banh trang nuong.

“Very few Vietnamese menus have ever thrown me a curveball,” she writes. “But the banh trang nuong made me realize just how much my knowledge of Vietnamese food relied on a static, South Vietnam–leaning snapshot of the cuisine from 1975, when most of our folks left the country.”

Ho goes on to explain the differences between pho enjoyed by northerners (a clear broth, minimal garnishings) and southerners (“a base to showcase the flagrant potency of their region’s herbs and chiles”). But this is only one example of Vietnam’s regional diversity. While the 1954 partition of Vietnam sent thousands of northerners—and pho—to Saigon, enabling rapid cultural exchange beyond north and south, central Vietnam developed more independently. With a mountainous terrain providing an abundance of spices, the region boasts an entirely separate canon of signature dishes, including a noodle soup called bun bo Hue, which is made with round rice noodles in a spice-forward lemongrass-pork broth.

To understand these various threads and facets of our cuisine—the modern and the traditional, the northern and the southern, the Chinese-influenced and the bastardized French, even the Vietnamese-American and the homegrown Vietnamese—is to know the history, and people, of Vietnam. And it’s this vibrant, proudly “inauthentic” cuisine that functions as a living document of the country’s tumultuous past, with many dishes speaking to the millennium of Chinese rule followed by several hundred years of French colonization.

One well-known early example of this is mi quang, the noodle soup originating from the central coastal province of Quang Nam. Layered with slices of pork and dried shrimp in a pork broth, the dish is best recognized by its strange yellow noodles.

“Legend has it that the dish’s noodles are yellow because Chinese colonizers preferred egg noodles, which are golden in color,” explains Tam Le, the chef of the Mexican-Vietnamese Saigonita in Ho Chi Minh City. “Because the Vietnamese preferred rice noodles, which are white, we just dyed our noodles yellow with turmeric to trick them—Vietnamese chefs, some of the original trolls.”

For all of the celebration of Vietnamese food today, there wasn’t much of it in recent times. “The Vietnamese more generally have had a lack of food throughout much of their modern history,” write Christopher Annear and Jack Harris in a survey of Vietnamese cuisine published in the summer 2018 issue of ASIANetworkExchange. “Hunger was a fact of life through the French colonial period, as well as the period of Japanese (Vichy French) occupation, during which over two million Vietnamese died of starvation.”

The adoption of the baguette (used in the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi), coffee (ca phe sua), and cheese (“fromage” became pho mai) in Vietnamese cuisine was not the result of a happy, serendipitous contact of cultures—as it is often portrayed in those rose-colored retellings of the history of colonial Vietnam. Rather, it was an act of resilience.

This kind of origin story is even shared by pho, arguably the most visible and well-known Vietnamese culinary export. In the early 1900s, the French, who had a taste for beef, began slaughtering Vietnamese cows, which had been used primarily as labor animals. Soup vendors living in Hanoi would repurpose leftover scraps from butchers to flavor their broth. Today, it’s the national pride of Vietnam.

“Viet cooks love to tweak things—they're always wanting to 'improve' things, to put their own stamp on something,” says Vietnamese food writer and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. “They're also into absorbing new cultural ideas and making them their own. It's how we've culturally survived over the years with so much foreign contact and subjugation.”

Naturally, those Vietnamese refugees who landed in enclaves like Houston, New Orleans, and Westminster, California, following the Vietnam War—over 200,000 by 1980— brought with them those same instincts of adaptability. Lacking in English-language ability and formal education, many turned to laundromats, nail salons, and, of course, restaurants to make a living. In New Orleans, the result was a small but renowned cluster of Vietnamese-owned crawfish shops.

These restaurateurs stayed true to traditional Cajun foodways. After all, Louisiana’s “boiling points” resemble the fresh seafood stands ubiquitous in Vietnam where one might spend hours snacking with their hands and enjoying cold beers.

But things changed in the late 1990s as Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana moved westward to Houston in search of economic opportuning. Here, those mudbugs they’d enjoyed in Louisiana, boiled in traditional spices, were updated with a second layer of seasoning—garlic, orange wedges, even lemongrass—applied outside the shell. A new craze was born. In 2018, celebrity chef David Chang brought the national spotlight to these experiments, calling Vietnamese food “the greatest success story of fusion food in the last hundred years” and Houston “the next food capital of America.”

“Hybrid dishes like Viet-Cajun crawfish fit into a long tradition of Vietnamese cooks adopting foreign foodways,” explains chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social in New York City. “I remember living in Houston when crawfish was really popular and cheap. At $0.79 per pound, our families went to town with the feasts. Now with added spices and ingredients like garlic butter, Viet-Cajun is still continuing to evolve to the taste and demands of the people.”

Nguyen represents the energy of a new generation on the horizon for Vietnamese cuisine, which has dug itself out of the hole in the wall reserved for “ethnic” food in America. Today, the children of first-wave immigrants who fled a war-torn Vietnam are opening their Vietnamese restaurants, bringing with them their ability to navigate the modern restaurant landscape and the desire to elevate the cuisine with higher-quality ingredients and thoughtful design.

“Historically, Vietnamese food has been considered ‘cheap’ because of the quality of products that were used,” explains Nguyen. “It wasn’t by choice. But today, I can take a very popular dish like bo luc lac and use dry aged ribeye to enhance the flavors of the dish, and maybe organic tomatoes to add an element of healthy sustainability to it.”

Within the last decade, many, like Tam Le, who grew up in Houston, have even returned to Vietnam with new ingredients and foreign foodways. At her Vietnamese-Mexican Saigonita pop-up, Le riffs on classic Vietnamese dishes with flavors she grew up with in Texas. Foreign flavors, these may be. But this time, the Vietnamese chefs who use them aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.

The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking

How two thousand years of resisting colonization produced the world’s greatest modern fusion cuisine.

The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking

Next story

When friends ask me about a Vietnamese restaurant they want to try, I’m still unsure how to answer the question, “Is it authentic?”.

As a Vietnamese-American from Houston who grew up eating traditional food almost daily, I know they typically mean to ask if a restaurant makes Vietnamese food like that of my childhood. Is the pho broth simmered with oxtail overnight, fragrant with anise and cinnamon? Are the eggrolls crackly-crispy with sweet-savory pork inside?

I have no problem describing what Vietnamese food means in this context. Some of my fondest memories revolve around exploring the Vietnamese markets of our sprawling Chinatown, pausing at various storefronts that specialized in a different snack: steamed rice rolls, fried batter and egg, or those French-influenced patê sô puff pastries encasing a beef patty.

I only began to recognize the fallacy of “authentic Vietnamese cuisine” when I first moved to New York, where Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants—heavy in Teochew and Cantonese dishes—were regarded as standard-bearers by local food media. It was unfamiliar to me, but was it not authentic to the ethnic Chinese who’d been in Vietnam for generations?

Then there was northern-style Vietnamese cuisine. On the Vice food channel, Munchies, I found a 2015 video titled “How to Eat Pho: You’ve Been Doing it Wrong”. “Have I really?,” I asked myself, as I watched the older Vietnamese restaurateur dip slices of rare eye round steak in a separate condiment dish before twirling them up with noodles. This is unlike eating pho in Saigon, where people add the sauces directly to the broth.

In a recent Taste story entitled “Why Is Vietnamese Food in America Frozen in the 1970s?”, Vietnamese-American chef and food critic Soleil Ho recounts a similar experience of surprise. In her case, Ho discovered a new contemporary street dish, banh trang nuong.

“Very few Vietnamese menus have ever thrown me a curveball,” she writes. “But the banh trang nuong made me realize just how much my knowledge of Vietnamese food relied on a static, South Vietnam–leaning snapshot of the cuisine from 1975, when most of our folks left the country.”

Ho goes on to explain the differences between pho enjoyed by northerners (a clear broth, minimal garnishings) and southerners (“a base to showcase the flagrant potency of their region’s herbs and chiles”). But this is only one example of Vietnam’s regional diversity. While the 1954 partition of Vietnam sent thousands of northerners—and pho—to Saigon, enabling rapid cultural exchange beyond north and south, central Vietnam developed more independently. With a mountainous terrain providing an abundance of spices, the region boasts an entirely separate canon of signature dishes, including a noodle soup called bun bo Hue, which is made with round rice noodles in a spice-forward lemongrass-pork broth.

To understand these various threads and facets of our cuisine—the modern and the traditional, the northern and the southern, the Chinese-influenced and the bastardized French, even the Vietnamese-American and the homegrown Vietnamese—is to know the history, and people, of Vietnam. And it’s this vibrant, proudly “inauthentic” cuisine that functions as a living document of the country’s tumultuous past, with many dishes speaking to the millennium of Chinese rule followed by several hundred years of French colonization.

One well-known early example of this is mi quang, the noodle soup originating from the central coastal province of Quang Nam. Layered with slices of pork and dried shrimp in a pork broth, the dish is best recognized by its strange yellow noodles.

“Legend has it that the dish’s noodles are yellow because Chinese colonizers preferred egg noodles, which are golden in color,” explains Tam Le, the chef of the Mexican-Vietnamese Saigonita in Ho Chi Minh City. “Because the Vietnamese preferred rice noodles, which are white, we just dyed our noodles yellow with turmeric to trick them—Vietnamese chefs, some of the original trolls.”

For all of the celebration of Vietnamese food today, there wasn’t much of it in recent times. “The Vietnamese more generally have had a lack of food throughout much of their modern history,” write Christopher Annear and Jack Harris in a survey of Vietnamese cuisine published in the summer 2018 issue of ASIANetworkExchange. “Hunger was a fact of life through the French colonial period, as well as the period of Japanese (Vichy French) occupation, during which over two million Vietnamese died of starvation.”

The adoption of the baguette (used in the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi), coffee (ca phe sua), and cheese (“fromage” became pho mai) in Vietnamese cuisine was not the result of a happy, serendipitous contact of cultures—as it is often portrayed in those rose-colored retellings of the history of colonial Vietnam. Rather, it was an act of resilience.

This kind of origin story is even shared by pho, arguably the most visible and well-known Vietnamese culinary export. In the early 1900s, the French, who had a taste for beef, began slaughtering Vietnamese cows, which had been used primarily as labor animals. Soup vendors living in Hanoi would repurpose leftover scraps from butchers to flavor their broth. Today, it’s the national pride of Vietnam.

“Viet cooks love to tweak things—they're always wanting to 'improve' things, to put their own stamp on something,” says Vietnamese food writer and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. “They're also into absorbing new cultural ideas and making them their own. It's how we've culturally survived over the years with so much foreign contact and subjugation.”

Naturally, those Vietnamese refugees who landed in enclaves like Houston, New Orleans, and Westminster, California, following the Vietnam War—over 200,000 by 1980— brought with them those same instincts of adaptability. Lacking in English-language ability and formal education, many turned to laundromats, nail salons, and, of course, restaurants to make a living. In New Orleans, the result was a small but renowned cluster of Vietnamese-owned crawfish shops.

These restaurateurs stayed true to traditional Cajun foodways. After all, Louisiana’s “boiling points” resemble the fresh seafood stands ubiquitous in Vietnam where one might spend hours snacking with their hands and enjoying cold beers.

But things changed in the late 1990s as Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana moved westward to Houston in search of economic opportuning. Here, those mudbugs they’d enjoyed in Louisiana, boiled in traditional spices, were updated with a second layer of seasoning—garlic, orange wedges, even lemongrass—applied outside the shell. A new craze was born. In 2018, celebrity chef David Chang brought the national spotlight to these experiments, calling Vietnamese food “the greatest success story of fusion food in the last hundred years” and Houston “the next food capital of America.”

“Hybrid dishes like Viet-Cajun crawfish fit into a long tradition of Vietnamese cooks adopting foreign foodways,” explains chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social in New York City. “I remember living in Houston when crawfish was really popular and cheap. At $0.79 per pound, our families went to town with the feasts. Now with added spices and ingredients like garlic butter, Viet-Cajun is still continuing to evolve to the taste and demands of the people.”

Nguyen represents the energy of a new generation on the horizon for Vietnamese cuisine, which has dug itself out of the hole in the wall reserved for “ethnic” food in America. Today, the children of first-wave immigrants who fled a war-torn Vietnam are opening their Vietnamese restaurants, bringing with them their ability to navigate the modern restaurant landscape and the desire to elevate the cuisine with higher-quality ingredients and thoughtful design.

“Historically, Vietnamese food has been considered ‘cheap’ because of the quality of products that were used,” explains Nguyen. “It wasn’t by choice. But today, I can take a very popular dish like bo luc lac and use dry aged ribeye to enhance the flavors of the dish, and maybe organic tomatoes to add an element of healthy sustainability to it.”

Within the last decade, many, like Tam Le, who grew up in Houston, have even returned to Vietnam with new ingredients and foreign foodways. At her Vietnamese-Mexican Saigonita pop-up, Le riffs on classic Vietnamese dishes with flavors she grew up with in Texas. Foreign flavors, these may be. But this time, the Vietnamese chefs who use them aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.

The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking

How two thousand years of resisting colonization produced the world’s greatest modern fusion cuisine.

The Survivor Spirit of Vietnamese Cooking

Next story

When friends ask me about a Vietnamese restaurant they want to try, I’m still unsure how to answer the question, “Is it authentic?”.

As a Vietnamese-American from Houston who grew up eating traditional food almost daily, I know they typically mean to ask if a restaurant makes Vietnamese food like that of my childhood. Is the pho broth simmered with oxtail overnight, fragrant with anise and cinnamon? Are the eggrolls crackly-crispy with sweet-savory pork inside?

I have no problem describing what Vietnamese food means in this context. Some of my fondest memories revolve around exploring the Vietnamese markets of our sprawling Chinatown, pausing at various storefronts that specialized in a different snack: steamed rice rolls, fried batter and egg, or those French-influenced patê sô puff pastries encasing a beef patty.

I only began to recognize the fallacy of “authentic Vietnamese cuisine” when I first moved to New York, where Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants—heavy in Teochew and Cantonese dishes—were regarded as standard-bearers by local food media. It was unfamiliar to me, but was it not authentic to the ethnic Chinese who’d been in Vietnam for generations?

Then there was northern-style Vietnamese cuisine. On the Vice food channel, Munchies, I found a 2015 video titled “How to Eat Pho: You’ve Been Doing it Wrong”. “Have I really?,” I asked myself, as I watched the older Vietnamese restaurateur dip slices of rare eye round steak in a separate condiment dish before twirling them up with noodles. This is unlike eating pho in Saigon, where people add the sauces directly to the broth.

In a recent Taste story entitled “Why Is Vietnamese Food in America Frozen in the 1970s?”, Vietnamese-American chef and food critic Soleil Ho recounts a similar experience of surprise. In her case, Ho discovered a new contemporary street dish, banh trang nuong.

“Very few Vietnamese menus have ever thrown me a curveball,” she writes. “But the banh trang nuong made me realize just how much my knowledge of Vietnamese food relied on a static, South Vietnam–leaning snapshot of the cuisine from 1975, when most of our folks left the country.”

Ho goes on to explain the differences between pho enjoyed by northerners (a clear broth, minimal garnishings) and southerners (“a base to showcase the flagrant potency of their region’s herbs and chiles”). But this is only one example of Vietnam’s regional diversity. While the 1954 partition of Vietnam sent thousands of northerners—and pho—to Saigon, enabling rapid cultural exchange beyond north and south, central Vietnam developed more independently. With a mountainous terrain providing an abundance of spices, the region boasts an entirely separate canon of signature dishes, including a noodle soup called bun bo Hue, which is made with round rice noodles in a spice-forward lemongrass-pork broth.

To understand these various threads and facets of our cuisine—the modern and the traditional, the northern and the southern, the Chinese-influenced and the bastardized French, even the Vietnamese-American and the homegrown Vietnamese—is to know the history, and people, of Vietnam. And it’s this vibrant, proudly “inauthentic” cuisine that functions as a living document of the country’s tumultuous past, with many dishes speaking to the millennium of Chinese rule followed by several hundred years of French colonization.

One well-known early example of this is mi quang, the noodle soup originating from the central coastal province of Quang Nam. Layered with slices of pork and dried shrimp in a pork broth, the dish is best recognized by its strange yellow noodles.

“Legend has it that the dish’s noodles are yellow because Chinese colonizers preferred egg noodles, which are golden in color,” explains Tam Le, the chef of the Mexican-Vietnamese Saigonita in Ho Chi Minh City. “Because the Vietnamese preferred rice noodles, which are white, we just dyed our noodles yellow with turmeric to trick them—Vietnamese chefs, some of the original trolls.”

For all of the celebration of Vietnamese food today, there wasn’t much of it in recent times. “The Vietnamese more generally have had a lack of food throughout much of their modern history,” write Christopher Annear and Jack Harris in a survey of Vietnamese cuisine published in the summer 2018 issue of ASIANetworkExchange. “Hunger was a fact of life through the French colonial period, as well as the period of Japanese (Vichy French) occupation, during which over two million Vietnamese died of starvation.”

The adoption of the baguette (used in the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi), coffee (ca phe sua), and cheese (“fromage” became pho mai) in Vietnamese cuisine was not the result of a happy, serendipitous contact of cultures—as it is often portrayed in those rose-colored retellings of the history of colonial Vietnam. Rather, it was an act of resilience.

This kind of origin story is even shared by pho, arguably the most visible and well-known Vietnamese culinary export. In the early 1900s, the French, who had a taste for beef, began slaughtering Vietnamese cows, which had been used primarily as labor animals. Soup vendors living in Hanoi would repurpose leftover scraps from butchers to flavor their broth. Today, it’s the national pride of Vietnam.

“Viet cooks love to tweak things—they're always wanting to 'improve' things, to put their own stamp on something,” says Vietnamese food writer and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. “They're also into absorbing new cultural ideas and making them their own. It's how we've culturally survived over the years with so much foreign contact and subjugation.”

Naturally, those Vietnamese refugees who landed in enclaves like Houston, New Orleans, and Westminster, California, following the Vietnam War—over 200,000 by 1980— brought with them those same instincts of adaptability. Lacking in English-language ability and formal education, many turned to laundromats, nail salons, and, of course, restaurants to make a living. In New Orleans, the result was a small but renowned cluster of Vietnamese-owned crawfish shops.

These restaurateurs stayed true to traditional Cajun foodways. After all, Louisiana’s “boiling points” resemble the fresh seafood stands ubiquitous in Vietnam where one might spend hours snacking with their hands and enjoying cold beers.

But things changed in the late 1990s as Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana moved westward to Houston in search of economic opportuning. Here, those mudbugs they’d enjoyed in Louisiana, boiled in traditional spices, were updated with a second layer of seasoning—garlic, orange wedges, even lemongrass—applied outside the shell. A new craze was born. In 2018, celebrity chef David Chang brought the national spotlight to these experiments, calling Vietnamese food “the greatest success story of fusion food in the last hundred years” and Houston “the next food capital of America.”

“Hybrid dishes like Viet-Cajun crawfish fit into a long tradition of Vietnamese cooks adopting foreign foodways,” explains chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social in New York City. “I remember living in Houston when crawfish was really popular and cheap. At $0.79 per pound, our families went to town with the feasts. Now with added spices and ingredients like garlic butter, Viet-Cajun is still continuing to evolve to the taste and demands of the people.”

Nguyen represents the energy of a new generation on the horizon for Vietnamese cuisine, which has dug itself out of the hole in the wall reserved for “ethnic” food in America. Today, the children of first-wave immigrants who fled a war-torn Vietnam are opening their Vietnamese restaurants, bringing with them their ability to navigate the modern restaurant landscape and the desire to elevate the cuisine with higher-quality ingredients and thoughtful design.

“Historically, Vietnamese food has been considered ‘cheap’ because of the quality of products that were used,” explains Nguyen. “It wasn’t by choice. But today, I can take a very popular dish like bo luc lac and use dry aged ribeye to enhance the flavors of the dish, and maybe organic tomatoes to add an element of healthy sustainability to it.”

Within the last decade, many, like Tam Le, who grew up in Houston, have even returned to Vietnam with new ingredients and foreign foodways. At her Vietnamese-Mexican Saigonita pop-up, Le riffs on classic Vietnamese dishes with flavors she grew up with in Texas. Foreign flavors, these may be. But this time, the Vietnamese chefs who use them aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.

The Chef Who Built Her Own Storage System To Waste Less

The Chef Who Built Her Own Storage System To Waste Less

Back to top

At the top of a Brownstone, just a few short blocks from Bed-Stuy's Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, the smell of caramelized onions and grilled fennel is all-consuming. Alida Borgna, an Italian-American private chef and co-founder of YAYA, lives with her brother, who also works in the food industry. Their professions shows in their house, which is rife with cookbooks and fermenting curiosities, filling the space to the brim, a stage for healthy sibling competition and good meals. Raised between Umbria and New York’s West Village, the freckled-covered, gap-toothed chef, who prefers the freedom of pop-ups over restaurant brigade-run kitchens, holds a degree in Gastronomic Sciences and is alumni of Chez Panisse.

In order to reduce food waste, Borgna has learnt to become very resourceful. Give her a bag of tomatoes and she'll be able to create three highly diverse dishes. But Borgna is not afraid to cook via emotion rather than precision. A recent dinner involved spilling polenta all over her dining room table, and she urged guests to scoop it up with their hands. By the end of the evening it was all gone.

For private chefs who are always on the move or working from someone else’s home, ensuring sound food storage systems is paramount to their success. However, one of the main causes of food waste in the home can be attributed to the lack of organization in fridges. This utilitarian object with a simple function - to keep food fresh - has been the main driver behind Borgna’s way of cooking. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten. In another study  by the USDA, the average American wastes about 225-290 pounds of food per year. After coming across artist Jihyun Ryou’s conceptual art project, “Save Food From the Fridge”, Borgna had found a tangible way to change this, at least in her own kitchen. Ryou’s project archives traditional food preservation and finds ways to implement them into modern day kitchens through updated designs.  

Today, Borgna builds custom food storage systems for herself and friends, employing carpentry skills she learned from her father. The outcomes are open-air wood structures that almost function as sculptures for the home. They feature netting, secret drawers, and nooks, customized to her diet.

How has returning from Italy inspired your approach to food?

It has encouraged me to be more playful and resourceful. The simple approach doesn't really get as much mileage here and the quantity to quality ratio feels much smaller. The food in Italy is so good because there is a strong foundation of knowledge and tradition-supporting cooks. The quality of the ingredients are excellent, even in supermarkets, whereas here I find that sourcing delicious ingredients is much more time consuming and expensive.  I still rely on the idea of cucina povera (poor man’s cooking) but tend to incorporate more spices and flavors than I would have in Italy, which feels apt considering the demographics of New York.  Those Italian traditions are my foundation, but I am mostly influenced by the day to day contact I have with different cultures and farmers that come my way here.   

Keeping food stored in cool, dark places is a practice that's been around for centuries. What's the argument for building a fridge unlike the electric ones we have access to now?

I’m not trying to build an anti-fridge. I am a Luddite, but I think the technology that fridges offer are very useful. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too comfortable and abuse the ease of a fridge to the point that it becomes a dead space.  

Can you talk about the process of customizing and building one based around your diet? What kind of fun accoutrements did you include? How does it fit into the interior design scheme of your home?

Jihyun’s work was such an inspiration to me, and I wanted to expand on her idea and come up with a system that would accommodate a person that cooked everyday and was bringing a substantial amount of food into their home. There is a section to store alliums, root vegetables, brassica and leafy greens, eggs, tubers and herbs…My kitchen is the heart of my home, and so introducing this structure felt natural to the space. It’s very much an actualization of what I imagine a holistic relationship to food looks like.

What was your relationship to your fridge like before building your own? Do you have any particular memories related to how you used fridges growing up?

I associate fridges with chaos. Growing up, you could never tell what would be lurking behind that piece of cheese. Nevertheless it’s definitely a dynamic space that required a thorough regular cleaning. I also work as a chef, so a lot of my time is spent trying to reinterpret leftovers and odds and ends from the events I cook for. It means I have a pretty close relationship with my fridge, and am aware of the pitfalls of the deep dark corners in the back shelves. The association with chaos has to do with the design of most fridge spaces - lots of different compartments and deep shelves, which in most fridges are filled with a mix of moldering condiments and forgotten leftovers.  My vision with food waste with this project is focused on the domestic space, and readdressing the home cook’s relationship with the food they bring into their home.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about the way we keep our food stored?

That it’s already dead!  So much of the food that we bring into our homes has the potential to be treated as a living plant or organism, and understanding that and treating your food as a living entity, as an extension of yourself is what I'm going for.  I want to encourage people to consider their food, and creating a physical structure is a way of capturing your attention and providing an optimal space to store what is eventually going to become a part of yourself.  It’s a full cycle of care that begins with the earth and ends with your body and well-being.

Has building your own fridge changed your relationship to food?

Yes, it’s like having a small garden in your kitchen that you need to tend. I feel more empowered and excited to buy food and bring it into my home. Interacting with the structure has also allowed me to understand the real life cycle of foods and how fragile they are, and how they interact with each other. The design of the fridge is evolving and not based on a particular culture, mostly older common knowledge relating to food storage which is universal. Every culture and country still shows vestiges of pre-fridge culture. A good example is the European way of keeping eggs outside of the fridge, or that some households in the US still have butter bells.

The Chef Who Built Her Own Storage System To Waste Less

The Chef Who Built Her Own Storage System To Waste Less

Next story

At the top of a Brownstone, just a few short blocks from Bed-Stuy's Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, the smell of caramelized onions and grilled fennel is all-consuming. Alida Borgna, an Italian-American private chef and co-founder of YAYA, lives with her brother, who also works in the food industry. Their professions shows in their house, which is rife with cookbooks and fermenting curiosities, filling the space to the brim, a stage for healthy sibling competition and good meals. Raised between Umbria and New York’s West Village, the freckled-covered, gap-toothed chef, who prefers the freedom of pop-ups over restaurant brigade-run kitchens, holds a degree in Gastronomic Sciences and is alumni of Chez Panisse.

In order to reduce food waste, Borgna has learnt to become very resourceful. Give her a bag of tomatoes and she'll be able to create three highly diverse dishes. But Borgna is not afraid to cook via emotion rather than precision. A recent dinner involved spilling polenta all over her dining room table, and she urged guests to scoop it up with their hands. By the end of the evening it was all gone.

For private chefs who are always on the move or working from someone else’s home, ensuring sound food storage systems is paramount to their success. However, one of the main causes of food waste in the home can be attributed to the lack of organization in fridges. This utilitarian object with a simple function - to keep food fresh - has been the main driver behind Borgna’s way of cooking. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten. In another study  by the USDA, the average American wastes about 225-290 pounds of food per year. After coming across artist Jihyun Ryou’s conceptual art project, “Save Food From the Fridge”, Borgna had found a tangible way to change this, at least in her own kitchen. Ryou’s project archives traditional food preservation and finds ways to implement them into modern day kitchens through updated designs.  

Today, Borgna builds custom food storage systems for herself and friends, employing carpentry skills she learned from her father. The outcomes are open-air wood structures that almost function as sculptures for the home. They feature netting, secret drawers, and nooks, customized to her diet.

How has returning from Italy inspired your approach to food?

It has encouraged me to be more playful and resourceful. The simple approach doesn't really get as much mileage here and the quantity to quality ratio feels much smaller. The food in Italy is so good because there is a strong foundation of knowledge and tradition-supporting cooks. The quality of the ingredients are excellent, even in supermarkets, whereas here I find that sourcing delicious ingredients is much more time consuming and expensive.  I still rely on the idea of cucina povera (poor man’s cooking) but tend to incorporate more spices and flavors than I would have in Italy, which feels apt considering the demographics of New York.  Those Italian traditions are my foundation, but I am mostly influenced by the day to day contact I have with different cultures and farmers that come my way here.   

Keeping food stored in cool, dark places is a practice that's been around for centuries. What's the argument for building a fridge unlike the electric ones we have access to now?

I’m not trying to build an anti-fridge. I am a Luddite, but I think the technology that fridges offer are very useful. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too comfortable and abuse the ease of a fridge to the point that it becomes a dead space.  

Can you talk about the process of customizing and building one based around your diet? What kind of fun accoutrements did you include? How does it fit into the interior design scheme of your home?

Jihyun’s work was such an inspiration to me, and I wanted to expand on her idea and come up with a system that would accommodate a person that cooked everyday and was bringing a substantial amount of food into their home. There is a section to store alliums, root vegetables, brassica and leafy greens, eggs, tubers and herbs…My kitchen is the heart of my home, and so introducing this structure felt natural to the space. It’s very much an actualization of what I imagine a holistic relationship to food looks like.

What was your relationship to your fridge like before building your own? Do you have any particular memories related to how you used fridges growing up?

I associate fridges with chaos. Growing up, you could never tell what would be lurking behind that piece of cheese. Nevertheless it’s definitely a dynamic space that required a thorough regular cleaning. I also work as a chef, so a lot of my time is spent trying to reinterpret leftovers and odds and ends from the events I cook for. It means I have a pretty close relationship with my fridge, and am aware of the pitfalls of the deep dark corners in the back shelves. The association with chaos has to do with the design of most fridge spaces - lots of different compartments and deep shelves, which in most fridges are filled with a mix of moldering condiments and forgotten leftovers.  My vision with food waste with this project is focused on the domestic space, and readdressing the home cook’s relationship with the food they bring into their home.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about the way we keep our food stored?

That it’s already dead!  So much of the food that we bring into our homes has the potential to be treated as a living plant or organism, and understanding that and treating your food as a living entity, as an extension of yourself is what I'm going for.  I want to encourage people to consider their food, and creating a physical structure is a way of capturing your attention and providing an optimal space to store what is eventually going to become a part of yourself.  It’s a full cycle of care that begins with the earth and ends with your body and well-being.

Has building your own fridge changed your relationship to food?

Yes, it’s like having a small garden in your kitchen that you need to tend. I feel more empowered and excited to buy food and bring it into my home. Interacting with the structure has also allowed me to understand the real life cycle of foods and how fragile they are, and how they interact with each other. The design of the fridge is evolving and not based on a particular culture, mostly older common knowledge relating to food storage which is universal. Every culture and country still shows vestiges of pre-fridge culture. A good example is the European way of keeping eggs outside of the fridge, or that some households in the US still have butter bells.

The Chef Who Built Her Own Storage System To Waste Less

The Chef Who Built Her Own Storage System To Waste Less

Next story

At the top of a Brownstone, just a few short blocks from Bed-Stuy's Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, the smell of caramelized onions and grilled fennel is all-consuming. Alida Borgna, an Italian-American private chef and co-founder of YAYA, lives with her brother, who also works in the food industry. Their professions shows in their house, which is rife with cookbooks and fermenting curiosities, filling the space to the brim, a stage for healthy sibling competition and good meals. Raised between Umbria and New York’s West Village, the freckled-covered, gap-toothed chef, who prefers the freedom of pop-ups over restaurant brigade-run kitchens, holds a degree in Gastronomic Sciences and is alumni of Chez Panisse.

In order to reduce food waste, Borgna has learnt to become very resourceful. Give her a bag of tomatoes and she'll be able to create three highly diverse dishes. But Borgna is not afraid to cook via emotion rather than precision. A recent dinner involved spilling polenta all over her dining room table, and she urged guests to scoop it up with their hands. By the end of the evening it was all gone.

For private chefs who are always on the move or working from someone else’s home, ensuring sound food storage systems is paramount to their success. However, one of the main causes of food waste in the home can be attributed to the lack of organization in fridges. This utilitarian object with a simple function - to keep food fresh - has been the main driver behind Borgna’s way of cooking. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten. In another study  by the USDA, the average American wastes about 225-290 pounds of food per year. After coming across artist Jihyun Ryou’s conceptual art project, “Save Food From the Fridge”, Borgna had found a tangible way to change this, at least in her own kitchen. Ryou’s project archives traditional food preservation and finds ways to implement them into modern day kitchens through updated designs.  

Today, Borgna builds custom food storage systems for herself and friends, employing carpentry skills she learned from her father. The outcomes are open-air wood structures that almost function as sculptures for the home. They feature netting, secret drawers, and nooks, customized to her diet.

How has returning from Italy inspired your approach to food?

It has encouraged me to be more playful and resourceful. The simple approach doesn't really get as much mileage here and the quantity to quality ratio feels much smaller. The food in Italy is so good because there is a strong foundation of knowledge and tradition-supporting cooks. The quality of the ingredients are excellent, even in supermarkets, whereas here I find that sourcing delicious ingredients is much more time consuming and expensive.  I still rely on the idea of cucina povera (poor man’s cooking) but tend to incorporate more spices and flavors than I would have in Italy, which feels apt considering the demographics of New York.  Those Italian traditions are my foundation, but I am mostly influenced by the day to day contact I have with different cultures and farmers that come my way here.   

Keeping food stored in cool, dark places is a practice that's been around for centuries. What's the argument for building a fridge unlike the electric ones we have access to now?

I’m not trying to build an anti-fridge. I am a Luddite, but I think the technology that fridges offer are very useful. Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too comfortable and abuse the ease of a fridge to the point that it becomes a dead space.  

Can you talk about the process of customizing and building one based around your diet? What kind of fun accoutrements did you include? How does it fit into the interior design scheme of your home?

Jihyun’s work was such an inspiration to me, and I wanted to expand on her idea and come up with a system that would accommodate a person that cooked everyday and was bringing a substantial amount of food into their home. There is a section to store alliums, root vegetables, brassica and leafy greens, eggs, tubers and herbs…My kitchen is the heart of my home, and so introducing this structure felt natural to the space. It’s very much an actualization of what I imagine a holistic relationship to food looks like.

What was your relationship to your fridge like before building your own? Do you have any particular memories related to how you used fridges growing up?

I associate fridges with chaos. Growing up, you could never tell what would be lurking behind that piece of cheese. Nevertheless it’s definitely a dynamic space that required a thorough regular cleaning. I also work as a chef, so a lot of my time is spent trying to reinterpret leftovers and odds and ends from the events I cook for. It means I have a pretty close relationship with my fridge, and am aware of the pitfalls of the deep dark corners in the back shelves. The association with chaos has to do with the design of most fridge spaces - lots of different compartments and deep shelves, which in most fridges are filled with a mix of moldering condiments and forgotten leftovers.  My vision with food waste with this project is focused on the domestic space, and readdressing the home cook’s relationship with the food they bring into their home.

What is the biggest misunderstanding about the way we keep our food stored?

That it’s already dead!  So much of the food that we bring into our homes has the potential to be treated as a living plant or organism, and understanding that and treating your food as a living entity, as an extension of yourself is what I'm going for.  I want to encourage people to consider their food, and creating a physical structure is a way of capturing your attention and providing an optimal space to store what is eventually going to become a part of yourself.  It’s a full cycle of care that begins with the earth and ends with your body and well-being.

Has building your own fridge changed your relationship to food?

Yes, it’s like having a small garden in your kitchen that you need to tend. I feel more empowered and excited to buy food and bring it into my home. Interacting with the structure has also allowed me to understand the real life cycle of foods and how fragile they are, and how they interact with each other. The design of the fridge is evolving and not based on a particular culture, mostly older common knowledge relating to food storage which is universal. Every culture and country still shows vestiges of pre-fridge culture. A good example is the European way of keeping eggs outside of the fridge, or that some households in the US still have butter bells.

Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia

Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia

Back to top

Home isn’t real. Home is wrapped up in nostalgia, and nostalgia lies. As much as it is a space of sinking into the good times, home can be a violent memory that shelters fear and loneliness. Home is the sweat of an onion in a heating pot, and the scent of a freshly squeezed lime.

We look to fix home, to give it roots, and we create rituals as floorboards for our identity. When we build home and make meaning in new spaces, we look back to a past or a time that we felt a sense of belonging and try to re-create those moments. Ideas of home can be what keeps our migrant bodies solid and whole in the spaces of now. It is this nostalgic approach that these notions of home – routines, textures, scents, tastes -  allow us to cocoon ourselves and our family in, from the newness around us.

But by looking backwards to static notions of home, we are in danger of simplifying our ideas of home and those that are in it. We are in danger of erasing people and of perpetuating a narrative that ‘home’ is always a place of safeness where, for some, that might not be the case.

Within the UK, I have watched the recent language of nostalgia create harm and otherness – friends have been violently and verbally abused in public. Since the Brexit referendum, the history of the UK was described  in static terms, a staid war-winning nation that is now dealing with swarms of migrants. The long history of diversity in the UK, including that of its troops during the world wars, is erased, painting a picture of past white-ness and success. This rhetoric of erasure is using notions of home to define a nation as a place to get back to and an idea to re-create nostalgia. But, in the words of feminist political theorist, Iris Marion Young, “nationalism is an important and dangerous manifestation of this temptation, in romanticizing “homeland””. This is language that has been utilised in post-colonial spaces when trying to recapture a time before colonialism; in both spaces, it creates a dangerous idea of home, one that was never real.

Academic Doreen Massey talks about how the past isn’t static, and how nostalgia can manipulate space and time and that this “robs others of their histories”. When this happens, we need to rework and rethink what nostalgia is.

Food has been my poetry of nostalgia, of creating my space of home and belonging. But have I used food as nostalgia to make a static past? Have I been romanticizing my past, to find a way to belong in my present? How am I able to complicate my nostalgia?

In an article for Taste written by food writer and chef Soleil Ho, the concept of ‘assimilation food’ focused my thinking on creating home through cooking and a way for me to think about my nostalgia. As a child, Soleil’s grandmother combined foods from a past, with available ingredients.  Soleil describes this as “new cuisine, forged from sensory memories and new ingredients”, allowing for a past and a present to co-exist. And so, in a quest to further untangle my relationship with nostalgia and belonging in my chosen home, London, I spoke with two chef friends with migrant backgrounds about how they cook at home.

Elizabeth Haigh was born in Singapore and grew up in the UK, raised by a Chinese Singaporean mother and an English father. She told me of two food memories that are imprinted on her. One is of her family sitting on the marble floor of the Singapore flat, eating durian on newspapers. Her dad is in the corner of the room, as far away as possible place from the smell. The other is a scene in England, her family cooking bread and butter pudding in England for Sunday roast dinner. Her mother is teaching her how to make custard. Both of these memories have very physical and sensorial aspects to them  - the distance of her father from the fruit, the act of teaching and learning, and the specificity of location.

I asked her what she wants her son, who just turned one, to think about when it comes to food, and what knowledge she would like to impart on him as a chef, as a mother, and as someone who’s grown up with two cultural identities. “I like to prep fish myself because I like to have the head on,” Elizabeth says. “And, it takes me back. I can hear my mother scaling the fish into a little plastic bag”. She wants her son to know the noise of preparing meals, of being intimately a part of all of the ingredients. But this act is also part of a cultural identity, of passing down a Chinese food heritage that involves cooking with fish heads.  

MiMi Aye is a British-born to Burmese parents. We spoke about how food feeds our space to belong, as MiMi cooked lunch for me.  The Nan Gyi Thoke (warm chicken noodle salad) was my first taste of Burmese food, which she made wearing a htamein (sarong). Cooking in a sarong brings back memories of watching my aunties cook in their sarongs, and me on my own on hot summer nights staring at an empty fridge in my London flat. And so, this new dish came with connotations of home. Home can sneak up on you.

For MiMi, it has been important to normalise the strong flavours than can be in Burmese food for her children, such as ngapi (fish or shrimp paste), by making them part of their daily life. But she also fondly recalls eaten modified versions of Burmese food in the UK. As a child, she would have spaghetti pasta in dishes as noodles weren’t available, something she still does out of nostalgia and ease. Burmese food isn’t well known in the UK, but the her upcoming cookbook, Mandalay: recipes and tales from a Burmese kitchen, will hopefully be a tangible building block for a Burmese identity in the UK.

Personally, I have been researching Sarawak pepper to find a current space of home and facing my past. The spice is integral to my history. My father is Iban, which is an indigenous people in East Malaysia in the state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. During the colonial period, they were dramatically known as the Headhunters of Borneo. Ibans are rice farmers but have also been growing pepper since the British Empire; it is considered high-grade in the global marketplace and pepper vines are a clear memory of my childhood.

My early childhood was in Sarawak; later, I lived in New Zealand, my mother’s home, and now I’m a British citizen. I felt that if I could understand this spice, as a flavour and as an economy, I could better understand my place in the world. Travelling back and forth between Sarawak and the UK, I have stood in the spaces where I remembered the pepper vines to be, on my family farm; yet, they no longer exist there. The heat and the sound of the river by the farm makes me feel instantly like a child, but the scenery is different; I feel too tall for the space. When I use it in London, the earthy smell of the pepper, feels less like an ingredient and much more like an emotion. And the shared London kitchen - with one flatmate’s KitchenAid and another’s toast crumbs taking up the bench space - feels more like a real space of home than standing in the absence of pepper vines.

My memory of home is one of smoke and heat of Sarawak. It’s of rivers and the smell of petrol from the longboats. The fire is burning, there is smell of food cooking; this is the space of home, permeating through memories, stable, consistent and familiar.

The shadowy figure of my mother is always present in this imagined place of home, permanently positioned within the space of nostalgia. I hold another version of my mother in my memory, one that’s situated in the New Zealand sunshine. Her white skin is burning and she looks like all of the other mothers, yet my sister and I look so different to the kiwi kids.

My mother gets to be a shadow in Sarawak and in flesh in New Zealand. Both versions of my mother sit separately, and therefore I don’t allow for a version of her that is fluid. She is a complex individual exiting in multiple spaces.

But if I take a way a sense of time and space and think about the food I ate and learnt to cook, through food I can hold multiple homes in both hands, at the same time. Through food, I can make conflicting identities whole. Through food, my mother gets to be both the woman who taught me to be Malaysian and my white New Zealand mother who built me a new home in a strange cold country. If I think of her continuous hunt for the perfect rendang recipe, her great chicken rice, her mouth-watering chicken liver pate and her familiar, warming gravy as being part of the same person, she gets to be in both spaces of my nostalgia and my present at the same time.

Cooking nourishes and pleases, its smells coat a space making it yours. The tangibility of it makes home a reality.

Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia

Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia

Next story

Home isn’t real. Home is wrapped up in nostalgia, and nostalgia lies. As much as it is a space of sinking into the good times, home can be a violent memory that shelters fear and loneliness. Home is the sweat of an onion in a heating pot, and the scent of a freshly squeezed lime.

We look to fix home, to give it roots, and we create rituals as floorboards for our identity. When we build home and make meaning in new spaces, we look back to a past or a time that we felt a sense of belonging and try to re-create those moments. Ideas of home can be what keeps our migrant bodies solid and whole in the spaces of now. It is this nostalgic approach that these notions of home – routines, textures, scents, tastes -  allow us to cocoon ourselves and our family in, from the newness around us.

But by looking backwards to static notions of home, we are in danger of simplifying our ideas of home and those that are in it. We are in danger of erasing people and of perpetuating a narrative that ‘home’ is always a place of safeness where, for some, that might not be the case.

Within the UK, I have watched the recent language of nostalgia create harm and otherness – friends have been violently and verbally abused in public. Since the Brexit referendum, the history of the UK was described  in static terms, a staid war-winning nation that is now dealing with swarms of migrants. The long history of diversity in the UK, including that of its troops during the world wars, is erased, painting a picture of past white-ness and success. This rhetoric of erasure is using notions of home to define a nation as a place to get back to and an idea to re-create nostalgia. But, in the words of feminist political theorist, Iris Marion Young, “nationalism is an important and dangerous manifestation of this temptation, in romanticizing “homeland””. This is language that has been utilised in post-colonial spaces when trying to recapture a time before colonialism; in both spaces, it creates a dangerous idea of home, one that was never real.

Academic Doreen Massey talks about how the past isn’t static, and how nostalgia can manipulate space and time and that this “robs others of their histories”. When this happens, we need to rework and rethink what nostalgia is.

Food has been my poetry of nostalgia, of creating my space of home and belonging. But have I used food as nostalgia to make a static past? Have I been romanticizing my past, to find a way to belong in my present? How am I able to complicate my nostalgia?

In an article for Taste written by food writer and chef Soleil Ho, the concept of ‘assimilation food’ focused my thinking on creating home through cooking and a way for me to think about my nostalgia. As a child, Soleil’s grandmother combined foods from a past, with available ingredients.  Soleil describes this as “new cuisine, forged from sensory memories and new ingredients”, allowing for a past and a present to co-exist. And so, in a quest to further untangle my relationship with nostalgia and belonging in my chosen home, London, I spoke with two chef friends with migrant backgrounds about how they cook at home.

Elizabeth Haigh was born in Singapore and grew up in the UK, raised by a Chinese Singaporean mother and an English father. She told me of two food memories that are imprinted on her. One is of her family sitting on the marble floor of the Singapore flat, eating durian on newspapers. Her dad is in the corner of the room, as far away as possible place from the smell. The other is a scene in England, her family cooking bread and butter pudding in England for Sunday roast dinner. Her mother is teaching her how to make custard. Both of these memories have very physical and sensorial aspects to them  - the distance of her father from the fruit, the act of teaching and learning, and the specificity of location.

I asked her what she wants her son, who just turned one, to think about when it comes to food, and what knowledge she would like to impart on him as a chef, as a mother, and as someone who’s grown up with two cultural identities. “I like to prep fish myself because I like to have the head on,” Elizabeth says. “And, it takes me back. I can hear my mother scaling the fish into a little plastic bag”. She wants her son to know the noise of preparing meals, of being intimately a part of all of the ingredients. But this act is also part of a cultural identity, of passing down a Chinese food heritage that involves cooking with fish heads.  

MiMi Aye is a British-born to Burmese parents. We spoke about how food feeds our space to belong, as MiMi cooked lunch for me.  The Nan Gyi Thoke (warm chicken noodle salad) was my first taste of Burmese food, which she made wearing a htamein (sarong). Cooking in a sarong brings back memories of watching my aunties cook in their sarongs, and me on my own on hot summer nights staring at an empty fridge in my London flat. And so, this new dish came with connotations of home. Home can sneak up on you.

For MiMi, it has been important to normalise the strong flavours than can be in Burmese food for her children, such as ngapi (fish or shrimp paste), by making them part of their daily life. But she also fondly recalls eaten modified versions of Burmese food in the UK. As a child, she would have spaghetti pasta in dishes as noodles weren’t available, something she still does out of nostalgia and ease. Burmese food isn’t well known in the UK, but the her upcoming cookbook, Mandalay: recipes and tales from a Burmese kitchen, will hopefully be a tangible building block for a Burmese identity in the UK.

Personally, I have been researching Sarawak pepper to find a current space of home and facing my past. The spice is integral to my history. My father is Iban, which is an indigenous people in East Malaysia in the state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. During the colonial period, they were dramatically known as the Headhunters of Borneo. Ibans are rice farmers but have also been growing pepper since the British Empire; it is considered high-grade in the global marketplace and pepper vines are a clear memory of my childhood.

My early childhood was in Sarawak; later, I lived in New Zealand, my mother’s home, and now I’m a British citizen. I felt that if I could understand this spice, as a flavour and as an economy, I could better understand my place in the world. Travelling back and forth between Sarawak and the UK, I have stood in the spaces where I remembered the pepper vines to be, on my family farm; yet, they no longer exist there. The heat and the sound of the river by the farm makes me feel instantly like a child, but the scenery is different; I feel too tall for the space. When I use it in London, the earthy smell of the pepper, feels less like an ingredient and much more like an emotion. And the shared London kitchen - with one flatmate’s KitchenAid and another’s toast crumbs taking up the bench space - feels more like a real space of home than standing in the absence of pepper vines.

My memory of home is one of smoke and heat of Sarawak. It’s of rivers and the smell of petrol from the longboats. The fire is burning, there is smell of food cooking; this is the space of home, permeating through memories, stable, consistent and familiar.

The shadowy figure of my mother is always present in this imagined place of home, permanently positioned within the space of nostalgia. I hold another version of my mother in my memory, one that’s situated in the New Zealand sunshine. Her white skin is burning and she looks like all of the other mothers, yet my sister and I look so different to the kiwi kids.

My mother gets to be a shadow in Sarawak and in flesh in New Zealand. Both versions of my mother sit separately, and therefore I don’t allow for a version of her that is fluid. She is a complex individual exiting in multiple spaces.

But if I take a way a sense of time and space and think about the food I ate and learnt to cook, through food I can hold multiple homes in both hands, at the same time. Through food, I can make conflicting identities whole. Through food, my mother gets to be both the woman who taught me to be Malaysian and my white New Zealand mother who built me a new home in a strange cold country. If I think of her continuous hunt for the perfect rendang recipe, her great chicken rice, her mouth-watering chicken liver pate and her familiar, warming gravy as being part of the same person, she gets to be in both spaces of my nostalgia and my present at the same time.

Cooking nourishes and pleases, its smells coat a space making it yours. The tangibility of it makes home a reality.

Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia

Cooking Home and Complicating Nostalgia

Next story

Home isn’t real. Home is wrapped up in nostalgia, and nostalgia lies. As much as it is a space of sinking into the good times, home can be a violent memory that shelters fear and loneliness. Home is the sweat of an onion in a heating pot, and the scent of a freshly squeezed lime.

We look to fix home, to give it roots, and we create rituals as floorboards for our identity. When we build home and make meaning in new spaces, we look back to a past or a time that we felt a sense of belonging and try to re-create those moments. Ideas of home can be what keeps our migrant bodies solid and whole in the spaces of now. It is this nostalgic approach that these notions of home – routines, textures, scents, tastes -  allow us to cocoon ourselves and our family in, from the newness around us.

But by looking backwards to static notions of home, we are in danger of simplifying our ideas of home and those that are in it. We are in danger of erasing people and of perpetuating a narrative that ‘home’ is always a place of safeness where, for some, that might not be the case.

Within the UK, I have watched the recent language of nostalgia create harm and otherness – friends have been violently and verbally abused in public. Since the Brexit referendum, the history of the UK was described  in static terms, a staid war-winning nation that is now dealing with swarms of migrants. The long history of diversity in the UK, including that of its troops during the world wars, is erased, painting a picture of past white-ness and success. This rhetoric of erasure is using notions of home to define a nation as a place to get back to and an idea to re-create nostalgia. But, in the words of feminist political theorist, Iris Marion Young, “nationalism is an important and dangerous manifestation of this temptation, in romanticizing “homeland””. This is language that has been utilised in post-colonial spaces when trying to recapture a time before colonialism; in both spaces, it creates a dangerous idea of home, one that was never real.

Academic Doreen Massey talks about how the past isn’t static, and how nostalgia can manipulate space and time and that this “robs others of their histories”. When this happens, we need to rework and rethink what nostalgia is.

Food has been my poetry of nostalgia, of creating my space of home and belonging. But have I used food as nostalgia to make a static past? Have I been romanticizing my past, to find a way to belong in my present? How am I able to complicate my nostalgia?

In an article for Taste written by food writer and chef Soleil Ho, the concept of ‘assimilation food’ focused my thinking on creating home through cooking and a way for me to think about my nostalgia. As a child, Soleil’s grandmother combined foods from a past, with available ingredients.  Soleil describes this as “new cuisine, forged from sensory memories and new ingredients”, allowing for a past and a present to co-exist. And so, in a quest to further untangle my relationship with nostalgia and belonging in my chosen home, London, I spoke with two chef friends with migrant backgrounds about how they cook at home.

Elizabeth Haigh was born in Singapore and grew up in the UK, raised by a Chinese Singaporean mother and an English father. She told me of two food memories that are imprinted on her. One is of her family sitting on the marble floor of the Singapore flat, eating durian on newspapers. Her dad is in the corner of the room, as far away as possible place from the smell. The other is a scene in England, her family cooking bread and butter pudding in England for Sunday roast dinner. Her mother is teaching her how to make custard. Both of these memories have very physical and sensorial aspects to them  - the distance of her father from the fruit, the act of teaching and learning, and the specificity of location.

I asked her what she wants her son, who just turned one, to think about when it comes to food, and what knowledge she would like to impart on him as a chef, as a mother, and as someone who’s grown up with two cultural identities. “I like to prep fish myself because I like to have the head on,” Elizabeth says. “And, it takes me back. I can hear my mother scaling the fish into a little plastic bag”. She wants her son to know the noise of preparing meals, of being intimately a part of all of the ingredients. But this act is also part of a cultural identity, of passing down a Chinese food heritage that involves cooking with fish heads.  

MiMi Aye is a British-born to Burmese parents. We spoke about how food feeds our space to belong, as MiMi cooked lunch for me.  The Nan Gyi Thoke (warm chicken noodle salad) was my first taste of Burmese food, which she made wearing a htamein (sarong). Cooking in a sarong brings back memories of watching my aunties cook in their sarongs, and me on my own on hot summer nights staring at an empty fridge in my London flat. And so, this new dish came with connotations of home. Home can sneak up on you.

For MiMi, it has been important to normalise the strong flavours than can be in Burmese food for her children, such as ngapi (fish or shrimp paste), by making them part of their daily life. But she also fondly recalls eaten modified versions of Burmese food in the UK. As a child, she would have spaghetti pasta in dishes as noodles weren’t available, something she still does out of nostalgia and ease. Burmese food isn’t well known in the UK, but the her upcoming cookbook, Mandalay: recipes and tales from a Burmese kitchen, will hopefully be a tangible building block for a Burmese identity in the UK.

Personally, I have been researching Sarawak pepper to find a current space of home and facing my past. The spice is integral to my history. My father is Iban, which is an indigenous people in East Malaysia in the state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. During the colonial period, they were dramatically known as the Headhunters of Borneo. Ibans are rice farmers but have also been growing pepper since the British Empire; it is considered high-grade in the global marketplace and pepper vines are a clear memory of my childhood.

My early childhood was in Sarawak; later, I lived in New Zealand, my mother’s home, and now I’m a British citizen. I felt that if I could understand this spice, as a flavour and as an economy, I could better understand my place in the world. Travelling back and forth between Sarawak and the UK, I have stood in the spaces where I remembered the pepper vines to be, on my family farm; yet, they no longer exist there. The heat and the sound of the river by the farm makes me feel instantly like a child, but the scenery is different; I feel too tall for the space. When I use it in London, the earthy smell of the pepper, feels less like an ingredient and much more like an emotion. And the shared London kitchen - with one flatmate’s KitchenAid and another’s toast crumbs taking up the bench space - feels more like a real space of home than standing in the absence of pepper vines.

My memory of home is one of smoke and heat of Sarawak. It’s of rivers and the smell of petrol from the longboats. The fire is burning, there is smell of food cooking; this is the space of home, permeating through memories, stable, consistent and familiar.

The shadowy figure of my mother is always present in this imagined place of home, permanently positioned within the space of nostalgia. I hold another version of my mother in my memory, one that’s situated in the New Zealand sunshine. Her white skin is burning and she looks like all of the other mothers, yet my sister and I look so different to the kiwi kids.

My mother gets to be a shadow in Sarawak and in flesh in New Zealand. Both versions of my mother sit separately, and therefore I don’t allow for a version of her that is fluid. She is a complex individual exiting in multiple spaces.

But if I take a way a sense of time and space and think about the food I ate and learnt to cook, through food I can hold multiple homes in both hands, at the same time. Through food, I can make conflicting identities whole. Through food, my mother gets to be both the woman who taught me to be Malaysian and my white New Zealand mother who built me a new home in a strange cold country. If I think of her continuous hunt for the perfect rendang recipe, her great chicken rice, her mouth-watering chicken liver pate and her familiar, warming gravy as being part of the same person, she gets to be in both spaces of my nostalgia and my present at the same time.

Cooking nourishes and pleases, its smells coat a space making it yours. The tangibility of it makes home a reality.

Guardian of the Sea

Guardian of the Sea

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As children growing up in Turkey, one of the first things we learn is that the country is surrounded by seas on three sides. The Black Sea to the north is known for its unrestrained beauty; the Aegean to the west is home to myths and legends; and the Mediterranean in the south is warm and easy. Located within Turkey are two very strategic straits: the Bosphorus, which cuts through Istanbul, and the Dardanelles, connecting Sea of Marmara to the Aegean.

It is a magical misty morning in October and I am on a ranger boat out in Southeast Aegean. To be more specific, this is Gökova - a spectacular bay with crystal blue waters and pine tree forests along the coast. The area is quiet this time of the year, without the madness of tourists and rental cruise boats. I dip my hand in and skim the cool, still water as the boat starts to gain speed. With the sun rising through the mist, it feels like one of those antique Japanese paintings.

Aside from being a beautiful bay, Gökova is home to one of the most successful marine conservation projects in the world: the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger Project. With me on the boat is Zafer Kızılkaya, the founder and president of The Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO aimed to conserve natural habitats and restore degraded coastal ecosystems in Turkey. Zafer is the man behind the Gökova project as well as other marine conservation projects led by the Society. As we speed through the bay, he stands up and waves at the small fishing boats along the way. He knows every little cove, every fisherman and fisherwoman in the area. He has spent years restoring life around these waters. He is a true hero; the only thing missing is a trident in his hand.

I first met Zafer Kızılkaya in 2017 when he came to speak at YEDI, the yearly food conference that I help organize in Istanbul. When he came to the conference, he had just received the Whitley Gold Award for his project in Gökova. The award is considered the “Green Oscars” and one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world. He spoke with enthusiasm about the drastic changes they’d observed since the project began a few years ago. The numbers were astonishing. Before their intervention, while looking absolutely beautiful above water, Gökova had become almost lifeless under water. Invasive fish had arrived from the Red Sea, seagrass capacity was diminishing and illegal fishing was devouring the sea at rapid rate. Through relentless commitment and a brilliant system, Zafer and his team had saved both marine life and the fishing community. They had also managed to create social change.

Turks have a complicated relationship with fish. On one hand, there are definite signs of love and affection. For example, we give lüfer, bluefish, different names depending on its size and call it “the prince of the Bosphorus”. At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over. It’s common to hear someone proudly say, “If my father came out of the sea, I would eat him too!” Throughout the Turkish coastline, you’ll find restaurants that specialize in fish. In the Black Sea region, the most important source of protein is the hamsi, the local anchovy. Songs are sung, and poems are written about this small, oily fish.

At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over.

(On another note, one of the most popular names given to babies is Deniz, which means “sea”. Personally, my two sons are named Ege, meaning “The Aegean”, and Mercan, which translates as “red seabream”. Yes, I named my kid after a fish!)

However, if you look at the whole of Turkey, with 8 kg per capita, seafood consumption is much lower than most European countries (the EU average is 25.1 kg). As you move away from the coasts, affinity with marine life understandably weakens. People favor animal fats over olive oil and meat over seafood. This distant relationship is not just due to geographical differences. There are religious and economic factors as well. Alcohol is usually part of the seafood meal, therefore not favored by devout Muslims. And fish is perceived as (and is) quite expensive.

When it comes to protecting our waters and its marine life, we are generally irresponsible and selfish. We tend to treat the sea like an endless source, expecting that it will continue to provide no matter what we do. Take Istanbul. Lüfer, the fish we prize most and call “prince of the Bosphorus”, is at the brink of extinction. Despite conservation efforts, you can still see illegally caught baby lüfer at markets and on restaurant menus.

I ask Zafer what he thinks about all of this. “Throughout history, Turks used the sea to fight, to go to war”, he says. “People have lost their family members to it. For most people, the sea drowns you, takes people away. So generally, the sea is not associated with abundance and wealth. It’s quite the opposite - people avoid it, not embrace it.”

When it comes to protecting our waters, he argues that we tend to expect the government to come up with solutions. “In Turkey, the public isn’t used to taking things into their own hands. They don’t see anything as their own responsibility. Instead, they expect everything to come from the government. So to make anything happen, there’s a need for proper enforcement,” he says.   

Zafer grew up in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, located inland in the northwestern part of the country. He spent his childhood watching Jacques Cousteau’s undersea documentaries on television. And as soon as he learned how to swim, he was hooked. Even when he went to study civil engineering at university, he knew that he would live in the sea rather than on land. He soon became an underwater photographer, worked as a volunteer for a tropical marine survey project in Indonesia, and later spent a few years in the tropical Pacific to document conservation issues and led expedition teams.

In 2006, while he was working at the Underwater Research Society in Turkey, a Mediterranean monk seal pup was found close by. She was only four weeks old and severely dehydrated. Zafer picked her up, set up a rehabilitation center and took care of her for five months until she was ready to be released back into the bay. The seal pup brought Zafer to Gökova Bay, and it didn’t take long for him to settle there. By then, Gökova Bay had shown signs of damage. In 2008, Zafer led a research team to oversee the state of northern Mediterranean. In Spain, protected areas had 90 grams of fish per square metre, whereas in Gökova, it was only 4 grams.

In 2010, Zafer and his team set up marine protected areas with the support of the government, but soon realized that laws weren’t enough. They needed actual monitoring on site. They found the solution by forming a marine ranger system. They started with three speedboats and six marine rangers, all of whom were local fishermen. Later they invested in a specially designed software to record unlawful fishing activities. Then drones came into effect. Local fishing communities, coastguards and the government all became part of a community-based conservation system.  

Not surprisingly, they were initially met with some resistance from local fishermen. These people had fished in the bay with no restraints; now, someone was telling them they had to stay away from certain areas. It was only when they saw the results and the gradual recovery of fish stocks, that they changed their attitudes and started supporting Zafer and his team.

They also created a program for fisherwomen. “In this area, there are more than 100 professional fisherwomen who spend over 300 days per year at the sea, and fish alongside their husbands. These women had no social status. Most didn’t even know how to swim,” Zafer says during our conversation. They devised educational programs aimed only at these women, teaching them about sustainable fishing, invasive fish, and women’s rights. For the first time in their lives, the women were given certificates and licences instead of their husbands.

Since its inception, the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger project has become one of the most successful marine conservation initiatives in the world. Over the years, it received numerous awards and grants. For Zafer, the difference in marine life and the livelihood of the fishermen and women are the real rewards. Their monitoring shows that there are 20 times more fish today in Gökova Bay than in 2013. The amount of fish per square metre has risen significantly, from 4 grams to 100 grams in the protected areas. They also see more and more grouper, seal, and shark, which had previously disappeared from these waters. Monk seals have recently returned to the bay, as well as loggerhead turtles.

Zafer and his team have also assisted communities to implement more sustainable fishing practices to reduce bycatch. Trawling has been banned within 300 kilometres, the largest area in Europe used for biodiversity and fish stock conservation. The local fishermen and women now know what to do with invasive fish. As a result, their yearly income has increased 4 times. From skeptics to full supporters, they now keep detailed reports on the number and species of fish they catch.

That morning, as we cruise  to one of the protected areas in Gökova Bay, I find out that Zafer and his team have recently received a new grant from Cambridge University. With it, they will expand the conservation area to 1000 kilometres, running all the way down to Antalya. “Imagine having the same results as we have had here, but on a much larger scale,” he says, smiling. He is hopeful, especially now that they have the fishermen and women on their side. Some will even join him in talking to fishing communities in the new areas. They have learned the value of taking responsibility for their own environments. Talk about real social change.

Just then, a group of dolphins swim by us and keep us company along the way. It looks like they also want to show their support.

Guardian of the Sea

Guardian of the Sea

Next story

As children growing up in Turkey, one of the first things we learn is that the country is surrounded by seas on three sides. The Black Sea to the north is known for its unrestrained beauty; the Aegean to the west is home to myths and legends; and the Mediterranean in the south is warm and easy. Located within Turkey are two very strategic straits: the Bosphorus, which cuts through Istanbul, and the Dardanelles, connecting Sea of Marmara to the Aegean.

It is a magical misty morning in October and I am on a ranger boat out in Southeast Aegean. To be more specific, this is Gökova - a spectacular bay with crystal blue waters and pine tree forests along the coast. The area is quiet this time of the year, without the madness of tourists and rental cruise boats. I dip my hand in and skim the cool, still water as the boat starts to gain speed. With the sun rising through the mist, it feels like one of those antique Japanese paintings.

Aside from being a beautiful bay, Gökova is home to one of the most successful marine conservation projects in the world: the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger Project. With me on the boat is Zafer Kızılkaya, the founder and president of The Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO aimed to conserve natural habitats and restore degraded coastal ecosystems in Turkey. Zafer is the man behind the Gökova project as well as other marine conservation projects led by the Society. As we speed through the bay, he stands up and waves at the small fishing boats along the way. He knows every little cove, every fisherman and fisherwoman in the area. He has spent years restoring life around these waters. He is a true hero; the only thing missing is a trident in his hand.

I first met Zafer Kızılkaya in 2017 when he came to speak at YEDI, the yearly food conference that I help organize in Istanbul. When he came to the conference, he had just received the Whitley Gold Award for his project in Gökova. The award is considered the “Green Oscars” and one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world. He spoke with enthusiasm about the drastic changes they’d observed since the project began a few years ago. The numbers were astonishing. Before their intervention, while looking absolutely beautiful above water, Gökova had become almost lifeless under water. Invasive fish had arrived from the Red Sea, seagrass capacity was diminishing and illegal fishing was devouring the sea at rapid rate. Through relentless commitment and a brilliant system, Zafer and his team had saved both marine life and the fishing community. They had also managed to create social change.

Turks have a complicated relationship with fish. On one hand, there are definite signs of love and affection. For example, we give lüfer, bluefish, different names depending on its size and call it “the prince of the Bosphorus”. At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over. It’s common to hear someone proudly say, “If my father came out of the sea, I would eat him too!” Throughout the Turkish coastline, you’ll find restaurants that specialize in fish. In the Black Sea region, the most important source of protein is the hamsi, the local anchovy. Songs are sung, and poems are written about this small, oily fish.

At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over.

(On another note, one of the most popular names given to babies is Deniz, which means “sea”. Personally, my two sons are named Ege, meaning “The Aegean”, and Mercan, which translates as “red seabream”. Yes, I named my kid after a fish!)

However, if you look at the whole of Turkey, with 8 kg per capita, seafood consumption is much lower than most European countries (the EU average is 25.1 kg). As you move away from the coasts, affinity with marine life understandably weakens. People favor animal fats over olive oil and meat over seafood. This distant relationship is not just due to geographical differences. There are religious and economic factors as well. Alcohol is usually part of the seafood meal, therefore not favored by devout Muslims. And fish is perceived as (and is) quite expensive.

When it comes to protecting our waters and its marine life, we are generally irresponsible and selfish. We tend to treat the sea like an endless source, expecting that it will continue to provide no matter what we do. Take Istanbul. Lüfer, the fish we prize most and call “prince of the Bosphorus”, is at the brink of extinction. Despite conservation efforts, you can still see illegally caught baby lüfer at markets and on restaurant menus.

I ask Zafer what he thinks about all of this. “Throughout history, Turks used the sea to fight, to go to war”, he says. “People have lost their family members to it. For most people, the sea drowns you, takes people away. So generally, the sea is not associated with abundance and wealth. It’s quite the opposite - people avoid it, not embrace it.”

When it comes to protecting our waters, he argues that we tend to expect the government to come up with solutions. “In Turkey, the public isn’t used to taking things into their own hands. They don’t see anything as their own responsibility. Instead, they expect everything to come from the government. So to make anything happen, there’s a need for proper enforcement,” he says.   

Zafer grew up in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, located inland in the northwestern part of the country. He spent his childhood watching Jacques Cousteau’s undersea documentaries on television. And as soon as he learned how to swim, he was hooked. Even when he went to study civil engineering at university, he knew that he would live in the sea rather than on land. He soon became an underwater photographer, worked as a volunteer for a tropical marine survey project in Indonesia, and later spent a few years in the tropical Pacific to document conservation issues and led expedition teams.

In 2006, while he was working at the Underwater Research Society in Turkey, a Mediterranean monk seal pup was found close by. She was only four weeks old and severely dehydrated. Zafer picked her up, set up a rehabilitation center and took care of her for five months until she was ready to be released back into the bay. The seal pup brought Zafer to Gökova Bay, and it didn’t take long for him to settle there. By then, Gökova Bay had shown signs of damage. In 2008, Zafer led a research team to oversee the state of northern Mediterranean. In Spain, protected areas had 90 grams of fish per square metre, whereas in Gökova, it was only 4 grams.

In 2010, Zafer and his team set up marine protected areas with the support of the government, but soon realized that laws weren’t enough. They needed actual monitoring on site. They found the solution by forming a marine ranger system. They started with three speedboats and six marine rangers, all of whom were local fishermen. Later they invested in a specially designed software to record unlawful fishing activities. Then drones came into effect. Local fishing communities, coastguards and the government all became part of a community-based conservation system.  

Not surprisingly, they were initially met with some resistance from local fishermen. These people had fished in the bay with no restraints; now, someone was telling them they had to stay away from certain areas. It was only when they saw the results and the gradual recovery of fish stocks, that they changed their attitudes and started supporting Zafer and his team.

They also created a program for fisherwomen. “In this area, there are more than 100 professional fisherwomen who spend over 300 days per year at the sea, and fish alongside their husbands. These women had no social status. Most didn’t even know how to swim,” Zafer says during our conversation. They devised educational programs aimed only at these women, teaching them about sustainable fishing, invasive fish, and women’s rights. For the first time in their lives, the women were given certificates and licences instead of their husbands.

Since its inception, the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger project has become one of the most successful marine conservation initiatives in the world. Over the years, it received numerous awards and grants. For Zafer, the difference in marine life and the livelihood of the fishermen and women are the real rewards. Their monitoring shows that there are 20 times more fish today in Gökova Bay than in 2013. The amount of fish per square metre has risen significantly, from 4 grams to 100 grams in the protected areas. They also see more and more grouper, seal, and shark, which had previously disappeared from these waters. Monk seals have recently returned to the bay, as well as loggerhead turtles.

Zafer and his team have also assisted communities to implement more sustainable fishing practices to reduce bycatch. Trawling has been banned within 300 kilometres, the largest area in Europe used for biodiversity and fish stock conservation. The local fishermen and women now know what to do with invasive fish. As a result, their yearly income has increased 4 times. From skeptics to full supporters, they now keep detailed reports on the number and species of fish they catch.

That morning, as we cruise  to one of the protected areas in Gökova Bay, I find out that Zafer and his team have recently received a new grant from Cambridge University. With it, they will expand the conservation area to 1000 kilometres, running all the way down to Antalya. “Imagine having the same results as we have had here, but on a much larger scale,” he says, smiling. He is hopeful, especially now that they have the fishermen and women on their side. Some will even join him in talking to fishing communities in the new areas. They have learned the value of taking responsibility for their own environments. Talk about real social change.

Just then, a group of dolphins swim by us and keep us company along the way. It looks like they also want to show their support.

Guardian of the Sea

Guardian of the Sea

Next story

As children growing up in Turkey, one of the first things we learn is that the country is surrounded by seas on three sides. The Black Sea to the north is known for its unrestrained beauty; the Aegean to the west is home to myths and legends; and the Mediterranean in the south is warm and easy. Located within Turkey are two very strategic straits: the Bosphorus, which cuts through Istanbul, and the Dardanelles, connecting Sea of Marmara to the Aegean.

It is a magical misty morning in October and I am on a ranger boat out in Southeast Aegean. To be more specific, this is Gökova - a spectacular bay with crystal blue waters and pine tree forests along the coast. The area is quiet this time of the year, without the madness of tourists and rental cruise boats. I dip my hand in and skim the cool, still water as the boat starts to gain speed. With the sun rising through the mist, it feels like one of those antique Japanese paintings.

Aside from being a beautiful bay, Gökova is home to one of the most successful marine conservation projects in the world: the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger Project. With me on the boat is Zafer Kızılkaya, the founder and president of The Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO aimed to conserve natural habitats and restore degraded coastal ecosystems in Turkey. Zafer is the man behind the Gökova project as well as other marine conservation projects led by the Society. As we speed through the bay, he stands up and waves at the small fishing boats along the way. He knows every little cove, every fisherman and fisherwoman in the area. He has spent years restoring life around these waters. He is a true hero; the only thing missing is a trident in his hand.

I first met Zafer Kızılkaya in 2017 when he came to speak at YEDI, the yearly food conference that I help organize in Istanbul. When he came to the conference, he had just received the Whitley Gold Award for his project in Gökova. The award is considered the “Green Oscars” and one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world. He spoke with enthusiasm about the drastic changes they’d observed since the project began a few years ago. The numbers were astonishing. Before their intervention, while looking absolutely beautiful above water, Gökova had become almost lifeless under water. Invasive fish had arrived from the Red Sea, seagrass capacity was diminishing and illegal fishing was devouring the sea at rapid rate. Through relentless commitment and a brilliant system, Zafer and his team had saved both marine life and the fishing community. They had also managed to create social change.

Turks have a complicated relationship with fish. On one hand, there are definite signs of love and affection. For example, we give lüfer, bluefish, different names depending on its size and call it “the prince of the Bosphorus”. At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over. It’s common to hear someone proudly say, “If my father came out of the sea, I would eat him too!” Throughout the Turkish coastline, you’ll find restaurants that specialize in fish. In the Black Sea region, the most important source of protein is the hamsi, the local anchovy. Songs are sung, and poems are written about this small, oily fish.

At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over.

(On another note, one of the most popular names given to babies is Deniz, which means “sea”. Personally, my two sons are named Ege, meaning “The Aegean”, and Mercan, which translates as “red seabream”. Yes, I named my kid after a fish!)

However, if you look at the whole of Turkey, with 8 kg per capita, seafood consumption is much lower than most European countries (the EU average is 25.1 kg). As you move away from the coasts, affinity with marine life understandably weakens. People favor animal fats over olive oil and meat over seafood. This distant relationship is not just due to geographical differences. There are religious and economic factors as well. Alcohol is usually part of the seafood meal, therefore not favored by devout Muslims. And fish is perceived as (and is) quite expensive.

When it comes to protecting our waters and its marine life, we are generally irresponsible and selfish. We tend to treat the sea like an endless source, expecting that it will continue to provide no matter what we do. Take Istanbul. Lüfer, the fish we prize most and call “prince of the Bosphorus”, is at the brink of extinction. Despite conservation efforts, you can still see illegally caught baby lüfer at markets and on restaurant menus.

I ask Zafer what he thinks about all of this. “Throughout history, Turks used the sea to fight, to go to war”, he says. “People have lost their family members to it. For most people, the sea drowns you, takes people away. So generally, the sea is not associated with abundance and wealth. It’s quite the opposite - people avoid it, not embrace it.”

When it comes to protecting our waters, he argues that we tend to expect the government to come up with solutions. “In Turkey, the public isn’t used to taking things into their own hands. They don’t see anything as their own responsibility. Instead, they expect everything to come from the government. So to make anything happen, there’s a need for proper enforcement,” he says.   

Zafer grew up in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, located inland in the northwestern part of the country. He spent his childhood watching Jacques Cousteau’s undersea documentaries on television. And as soon as he learned how to swim, he was hooked. Even when he went to study civil engineering at university, he knew that he would live in the sea rather than on land. He soon became an underwater photographer, worked as a volunteer for a tropical marine survey project in Indonesia, and later spent a few years in the tropical Pacific to document conservation issues and led expedition teams.

In 2006, while he was working at the Underwater Research Society in Turkey, a Mediterranean monk seal pup was found close by. She was only four weeks old and severely dehydrated. Zafer picked her up, set up a rehabilitation center and took care of her for five months until she was ready to be released back into the bay. The seal pup brought Zafer to Gökova Bay, and it didn’t take long for him to settle there. By then, Gökova Bay had shown signs of damage. In 2008, Zafer led a research team to oversee the state of northern Mediterranean. In Spain, protected areas had 90 grams of fish per square metre, whereas in Gökova, it was only 4 grams.

In 2010, Zafer and his team set up marine protected areas with the support of the government, but soon realized that laws weren’t enough. They needed actual monitoring on site. They found the solution by forming a marine ranger system. They started with three speedboats and six marine rangers, all of whom were local fishermen. Later they invested in a specially designed software to record unlawful fishing activities. Then drones came into effect. Local fishing communities, coastguards and the government all became part of a community-based conservation system.  

Not surprisingly, they were initially met with some resistance from local fishermen. These people had fished in the bay with no restraints; now, someone was telling them they had to stay away from certain areas. It was only when they saw the results and the gradual recovery of fish stocks, that they changed their attitudes and started supporting Zafer and his team.

They also created a program for fisherwomen. “In this area, there are more than 100 professional fisherwomen who spend over 300 days per year at the sea, and fish alongside their husbands. These women had no social status. Most didn’t even know how to swim,” Zafer says during our conversation. They devised educational programs aimed only at these women, teaching them about sustainable fishing, invasive fish, and women’s rights. For the first time in their lives, the women were given certificates and licences instead of their husbands.

Since its inception, the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger project has become one of the most successful marine conservation initiatives in the world. Over the years, it received numerous awards and grants. For Zafer, the difference in marine life and the livelihood of the fishermen and women are the real rewards. Their monitoring shows that there are 20 times more fish today in Gökova Bay than in 2013. The amount of fish per square metre has risen significantly, from 4 grams to 100 grams in the protected areas. They also see more and more grouper, seal, and shark, which had previously disappeared from these waters. Monk seals have recently returned to the bay, as well as loggerhead turtles.

Zafer and his team have also assisted communities to implement more sustainable fishing practices to reduce bycatch. Trawling has been banned within 300 kilometres, the largest area in Europe used for biodiversity and fish stock conservation. The local fishermen and women now know what to do with invasive fish. As a result, their yearly income has increased 4 times. From skeptics to full supporters, they now keep detailed reports on the number and species of fish they catch.

That morning, as we cruise  to one of the protected areas in Gökova Bay, I find out that Zafer and his team have recently received a new grant from Cambridge University. With it, they will expand the conservation area to 1000 kilometres, running all the way down to Antalya. “Imagine having the same results as we have had here, but on a much larger scale,” he says, smiling. He is hopeful, especially now that they have the fishermen and women on their side. Some will even join him in talking to fishing communities in the new areas. They have learned the value of taking responsibility for their own environments. Talk about real social change.

Just then, a group of dolphins swim by us and keep us company along the way. It looks like they also want to show their support.

Food And All Its Blessings

How a Queer Jewish Cookbook Served Comfort to a Community Coping with AIDS.

Food And All Its Blessings

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Susan Unger was 26 when she moved to San Francisco. It was 1982 and Unger, a lesbian, found a gay wonderland. She got an apartment at 17th Street and Guerrero, technically the Mission but close enough to the Castro to make Unger feel she’d landed someplace crucial. It was the terminus of a great migration west for gays and lesbians that began in the early 1970s, almost immediately after the Stonewall rebellion in New York.

Unger had a gay older brother, Steven, who had made it to SF first. Together, though on a different schedule, they’d slipped from the physical orbit of their family in Chicago. For lots of gay people, the move to San Francisco or New York was an act of resistance against the gravitational pull of tradition, as if the gay ghettoes’ rainbow flags formed a flapping shield against the forces of hate deployed by outraged strangers and even relatives. Many who came out publicly knew the anguish of rejection by parents. “People being separated from their families, alienated: that was a huge aspect of gay life in San Francisco at that time,” Unger says today, looking back. “So many people had moved there to be their authentic selves.”

And yet, despite the fog that spilled over Twin Peaks and into the Castro most afternoons, San Francisco gleamed. For many who flocked there, it was an experiment in freedom. Even the food was brave and brash and in love with the harvest of the material world.

In 1983 The Village Voice sent its critic, Jeff Weinstein, to witness the burgeoning of new restaurants on the coast, a thing food editors in New York had jammed together under the category “California Cuisine.” That meant anything from grilling over mesquite, to welding Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican ingredients onto vaguely French dishes, to dribbling balsamic vinegar over literally everything. Weinstein ate at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower’s Santa Fe Bar and Grill and wrote, “The mid-sized stage-set city on the bay has a bubbling political life, cultural life, business life, ethnic life, and gay life, but if you happen to see a pair of hands flapping away in the air, punctuating vital conversation, you may assume the party is discussing food.” Food was the language of civic life.

It was the city’s obsession, maybe because so many had come to San Francisco to find a purpose in pleasure, or to probe the senses as a source of wisdom, or at least to glimpse an inkling of meaning in physical experience, like blow jobs on poppers at the back of the leather bars in Soma or group hot-tubbing at the sage-smudged women’s bathhouse on Valencia. Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be. Weinstein had witnessed this in two weeks; Unger learned it nearly as fast.

Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be.

She’d taken a job with a revolutionary wholesale produce company, Greenleaf. A couple of gay men started it in 1976, when they’d drive their van to the wee organic farms of Bolinas and Santa Cruz and haul the world’s most beautiful lettuces, figs, tomatoes, and herbs back to SF and Berkeley. Unger became a sales assistant. She took telephone orders and packed crates for the delivery trucks.

A chef might call and ask how the apricots tasted. “I’d eat one,” Unger says, “and describe it to her over the phone.” Producing gorgeous meals in the Bay Area’s restaurants depended on an intricate network of collaborators, a revelation that helped Unger decide, one morning at 3:30 as she pedaled her bike to the produce terminal, to launch a project that would organize a lot of people in San Francisco around a shared purpose of food. It occurred to her to write a cookbook—or, more aptly, orchestrate one—in part to ease the pain of a scourge.

That scourge, of course, was the mysterious and terrifying thing dubbed AIDS in 1982, the year Unger arrived. (It  was previously known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency; the epithets “gay cancer” and “the gay plague” would linger for years.)

AIDS was the fear, at first rumbling and easy to dismiss, later quaking and instinct with panic, that shook the Castro and the city around it. An alarming number of young gay men would see their doctor with symptoms (fatigue, spiking fevers) that they could not diagnose. Some would lose their jobs after skin lesions showed; most would be dead within six months. “People were dying very quickly,” Unger says.

She came to feel how loss could gnaw at a loose community, and absolutely waste a tight one. Because Unger didn’t just count herself a member of San Francisco’s tribe of miscellaneous gays and lesbians, she belonged to a synagogue: a queer one in the Castro.

Sha’ar Zahav (“Golden Gate” in Hebrew) came together in 1977, as a Reform congregation intent on outreach to gays and lesbians. Its act of tribal selection was every bit as potent, for queer Jews, as the initial migration to San Francisco. “There is no way to describe how it feels,” wrote an early member, Nancy Meyer, “to choose what is yours and make it your own, surrounded by a beloved synagogue family that knows, cares, and understands what that choice means.” The year Sha’ar Zahav took form, Harvey Milk won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ten years after the start of the gay liberation movement, there were enough authentic selves in San Francisco to braid a strand of queerness into the complicated fabric of civic life. (Though non-religious, Milk showed up at Sha’ar Zahav for Rosh Hashanah services in 1978, less than two months before his assassination.)

Early members of the synagogue wrote non-sexist liturgy for the Friday night prayer book, and later took on the Passover haggadah. The drafting committee wrote parodies satirizing the minefield-crossing effort to reach wording wiped of militarism and the patriarchy. “Bless you, She,” read one, “our almighty but non-aggressive Concept, who creates the crust of the quiche.” They erased the unspoken rules of gender, as a founder recalled of Sha’ar Zahav’s first Chanukah, when men, not women, made the latkes. “In 1977,” Bernard Pechter said, “this was a big thing.”

The tiny synagogue pinged around, meeting first at Glide, a radical Methodist congregation in the Tenderloin, then to other churches, a Buddhist monastery, and a lesbian and gay community center. By 1987 Sha’ar Zahav had 300 regular members, and more than a thousand showed up for the High Holidays. The congregation had acquired a building, an old Mormon church in prim craftsman style, perched on the neighborhood’s tallest hill. It had peaked, mullioned windows like the one in Grant Wood’s American Gothic and a ceiling vaulted with naked beams.

The cookbook Unger pitched to the congregation was to mark all of that, its 10-year anniversary, the successes, and its compassion for those struggling with an ever-present disease, in remembrance of men suddenly absent who would never come again.

“In our discussions,” Unger says, “it was like, ‘Well, we can produce this, but there’s thousands and thousands of cookbooks, why would anybody buy ours?’” Unger searched bookshops for other Jewish cookbooks, to see how they were organized. She bought The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan, published in 1979. Unger’s flash came from another book, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin, on Jewish cooking—cucina ebraica—as it evolved over hundreds of years in Italy. “It really tells the story of this whole way of life,” she says, “of time and place and culture and social group.”

The queer Jews of Sha’ar Zahav had their own particular way of life, manifested in holiday meals with chosen family, first-date vegetarian suppers, and weeknight meals with partners: a convergence of time, place, culture, and social group as distinctive as that of Roman Jews in the early 1900s. To write a cookbook that captured the Castro in 1987, Unger looked for inspiration in something far less distant. “I knew that other synagogues had developed cookbooks,” she says. An epiphany came when Unger remembered something  had always been around her family’s kitchen when she was a girl.

The Fairmount Cookbook was published in 1948 by the Fairmount Temple Sisterhood, a group of women in a Reform congregation in suburban Cleveland, where Unger’s mother had grown up. “It wasn’t what you might call gourmet,” Unger says , “and it also wasn’t kosher.” One recipe named “The Famous Weenie Casserole” called for brown sugar and an entire bottle of chili sauce. Still, with recipes contributed by the women of the congregation, it had the flavor of shared purpose Unger was searching for.

For the book they’d produce, Unger and her committee settled on donations to the SF AIDS Foundation’s food bank: three dollars from every $12.95 copy. A note inside the front cover would let the reader know to drop off non-perishable grocery items at the synagogue, to be delivered to the AIDS Foundation.

It was a charity cookbook, put together to raise money for a new temple roof or to launch a Hebrew school. Cookbook scholar Juli McLoone, a curator at the University of Michigan Library's Special Collections Research Center at Ann Arbor, says the first American charity cookbook appeared in Philadelphia in 1864. A Poetical Cookbook, by Maria J. Moss, raised funds to improve the living conditions of Union soldiers fighting the Civil War. These books proliferated in the late 19th century, mostly as Protestant church cookbooks. In the early 20th century other organizations, including synagogues like the Fairmount Temple, produced them. “A feature of charity cookbooks,” McLoone says, “is that they were done by women organizing for a cause.” Since theirs was a collaboration by women and men, Sha’ar Zahav was already disrupting the traditional charity cookbook, blurring gender roles the way they did with the Friday night prayer book.

Self-published as a trade paperback in 1987, Sha’ar Zahav’s cookbook is a founding document of queer food at the end of the great lesbian and gay migration. It’s clear that, while Joan Nathan’s book on holiday cooking might have given the cookbook committee ideas for organizing food around occasions, it didn’t copy them. The menus stand like notifications in a queer calendar of significant events from the 1980s: “Coming Out Cocktail Party for 25”; “Gay and Lesbian Pride Day Pre-Parade Buffet”; “Commitment Ceremony Lawn Lunch.” There’s a “Women’s Havurah Potluck Supper” for feminist bonding over tofu loaf, with a noodle kugel named for someone’s Granny Ethel.

The committee spent hours hashing out a title before it came up with Out of Our Kitchen Closets. “The idea was we needed to be out there about who we were,” Unger says. Ralph Frischman, a congregation member with a showy interior design business, knew an artist, Carol Romano, who could illustrate the cover. Romano came up with an impressionistic rainbow that delivers a pile of vegetables and fruits (peppers, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, red cabbage, eggplant), each aligned to one of its six colors.

The order of Romano’s rainbow colors doesn’t match original designer Gilbert Baker’s pride-flag scheme. He stuck green at the top next to yellow, instead of clustering it mid-flag with the cool tones; maybe she decided the bell peppers belonged together. Even so, it works as an allegory. Queer identity, worn as prominently as a rainbow streaks the sky, can turn into something corporeal, a tangible good: food and all its blessings.

So many gays and lesbians who’d come to San Francisco were forced to leave behind the comforts they knew as kids - favorite dishes, holiday nostalgia, the inextinguishable sense-memory of cook smells - no matter how conflicted they might have been about their blood families. The committee argued long over the order of the words in the book’s subtitle, San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking. “We felt that ‘gay,’ ‘Jewish cooking,’ and ‘San Francisco’ were three of the best cards in our hand,” Unger says, “and we had all three together.” The three are in balance: none greater, none lesser than the others.

Unger thinks one of the best things about putting the book together was that members of the congregation had to reach out to mothers and grandparents for recipes they loved. “It created a wonderful way to reconnect in a very positive, meaningful, loving way,” she says. Assembling Out of Our Kitchen Closets was an act of reclaiming those things, and its cover offered a symbol of optimism—of hope—during one of the bleakest times in modern gay history. Though the Sha’ar Zahav cookbook is a work of celebration, AIDS casts a shadow. “Even during the making of the book,” Unger says, “a couple of people who were working on it died.”

The congregation printed 500 copies initially, and demand was robust enough to justify printing 1,500 more. Today it’s scarce; copies on Amazon start at $50. Now and then, one shows up for cheap.

A few years ago, Unger heard about one such copy from an old friend, a woman she first met on a kibbutz in Israel when they were 17. Over the decades they stayed connected. A while back her friend got in touch to say that her son, who was in his twenties and living in New York, had been struggling with coming out. “He realized he was gay,” Unger’s friend told her, “but was really conflicted.” The son had found a copy of Out of Our Kitchen Closets in a thrift store in Manhattan. “He sent it to his mother,” Unger says, “and she opened it up and found my name.”

The scarred book with a rainbow on its cover helped her friend reconnect with her son, which was just, Unger says, “amazing.” After 30 years, a cookbook written in part to alleviate the pain of loss for a queer generation still had solace left to give.

Food And All Its Blessings

How a Queer Jewish Cookbook Served Comfort to a Community Coping with AIDS.

Food And All Its Blessings

Next story

Susan Unger was 26 when she moved to San Francisco. It was 1982 and Unger, a lesbian, found a gay wonderland. She got an apartment at 17th Street and Guerrero, technically the Mission but close enough to the Castro to make Unger feel she’d landed someplace crucial. It was the terminus of a great migration west for gays and lesbians that began in the early 1970s, almost immediately after the Stonewall rebellion in New York.

Unger had a gay older brother, Steven, who had made it to SF first. Together, though on a different schedule, they’d slipped from the physical orbit of their family in Chicago. For lots of gay people, the move to San Francisco or New York was an act of resistance against the gravitational pull of tradition, as if the gay ghettoes’ rainbow flags formed a flapping shield against the forces of hate deployed by outraged strangers and even relatives. Many who came out publicly knew the anguish of rejection by parents. “People being separated from their families, alienated: that was a huge aspect of gay life in San Francisco at that time,” Unger says today, looking back. “So many people had moved there to be their authentic selves.”

And yet, despite the fog that spilled over Twin Peaks and into the Castro most afternoons, San Francisco gleamed. For many who flocked there, it was an experiment in freedom. Even the food was brave and brash and in love with the harvest of the material world.

In 1983 The Village Voice sent its critic, Jeff Weinstein, to witness the burgeoning of new restaurants on the coast, a thing food editors in New York had jammed together under the category “California Cuisine.” That meant anything from grilling over mesquite, to welding Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican ingredients onto vaguely French dishes, to dribbling balsamic vinegar over literally everything. Weinstein ate at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower’s Santa Fe Bar and Grill and wrote, “The mid-sized stage-set city on the bay has a bubbling political life, cultural life, business life, ethnic life, and gay life, but if you happen to see a pair of hands flapping away in the air, punctuating vital conversation, you may assume the party is discussing food.” Food was the language of civic life.

It was the city’s obsession, maybe because so many had come to San Francisco to find a purpose in pleasure, or to probe the senses as a source of wisdom, or at least to glimpse an inkling of meaning in physical experience, like blow jobs on poppers at the back of the leather bars in Soma or group hot-tubbing at the sage-smudged women’s bathhouse on Valencia. Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be. Weinstein had witnessed this in two weeks; Unger learned it nearly as fast.

Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be.

She’d taken a job with a revolutionary wholesale produce company, Greenleaf. A couple of gay men started it in 1976, when they’d drive their van to the wee organic farms of Bolinas and Santa Cruz and haul the world’s most beautiful lettuces, figs, tomatoes, and herbs back to SF and Berkeley. Unger became a sales assistant. She took telephone orders and packed crates for the delivery trucks.

A chef might call and ask how the apricots tasted. “I’d eat one,” Unger says, “and describe it to her over the phone.” Producing gorgeous meals in the Bay Area’s restaurants depended on an intricate network of collaborators, a revelation that helped Unger decide, one morning at 3:30 as she pedaled her bike to the produce terminal, to launch a project that would organize a lot of people in San Francisco around a shared purpose of food. It occurred to her to write a cookbook—or, more aptly, orchestrate one—in part to ease the pain of a scourge.

That scourge, of course, was the mysterious and terrifying thing dubbed AIDS in 1982, the year Unger arrived. (It  was previously known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency; the epithets “gay cancer” and “the gay plague” would linger for years.)

AIDS was the fear, at first rumbling and easy to dismiss, later quaking and instinct with panic, that shook the Castro and the city around it. An alarming number of young gay men would see their doctor with symptoms (fatigue, spiking fevers) that they could not diagnose. Some would lose their jobs after skin lesions showed; most would be dead within six months. “People were dying very quickly,” Unger says.

She came to feel how loss could gnaw at a loose community, and absolutely waste a tight one. Because Unger didn’t just count herself a member of San Francisco’s tribe of miscellaneous gays and lesbians, she belonged to a synagogue: a queer one in the Castro.

Sha’ar Zahav (“Golden Gate” in Hebrew) came together in 1977, as a Reform congregation intent on outreach to gays and lesbians. Its act of tribal selection was every bit as potent, for queer Jews, as the initial migration to San Francisco. “There is no way to describe how it feels,” wrote an early member, Nancy Meyer, “to choose what is yours and make it your own, surrounded by a beloved synagogue family that knows, cares, and understands what that choice means.” The year Sha’ar Zahav took form, Harvey Milk won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ten years after the start of the gay liberation movement, there were enough authentic selves in San Francisco to braid a strand of queerness into the complicated fabric of civic life. (Though non-religious, Milk showed up at Sha’ar Zahav for Rosh Hashanah services in 1978, less than two months before his assassination.)

Early members of the synagogue wrote non-sexist liturgy for the Friday night prayer book, and later took on the Passover haggadah. The drafting committee wrote parodies satirizing the minefield-crossing effort to reach wording wiped of militarism and the patriarchy. “Bless you, She,” read one, “our almighty but non-aggressive Concept, who creates the crust of the quiche.” They erased the unspoken rules of gender, as a founder recalled of Sha’ar Zahav’s first Chanukah, when men, not women, made the latkes. “In 1977,” Bernard Pechter said, “this was a big thing.”

The tiny synagogue pinged around, meeting first at Glide, a radical Methodist congregation in the Tenderloin, then to other churches, a Buddhist monastery, and a lesbian and gay community center. By 1987 Sha’ar Zahav had 300 regular members, and more than a thousand showed up for the High Holidays. The congregation had acquired a building, an old Mormon church in prim craftsman style, perched on the neighborhood’s tallest hill. It had peaked, mullioned windows like the one in Grant Wood’s American Gothic and a ceiling vaulted with naked beams.

The cookbook Unger pitched to the congregation was to mark all of that, its 10-year anniversary, the successes, and its compassion for those struggling with an ever-present disease, in remembrance of men suddenly absent who would never come again.

“In our discussions,” Unger says, “it was like, ‘Well, we can produce this, but there’s thousands and thousands of cookbooks, why would anybody buy ours?’” Unger searched bookshops for other Jewish cookbooks, to see how they were organized. She bought The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan, published in 1979. Unger’s flash came from another book, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin, on Jewish cooking—cucina ebraica—as it evolved over hundreds of years in Italy. “It really tells the story of this whole way of life,” she says, “of time and place and culture and social group.”

The queer Jews of Sha’ar Zahav had their own particular way of life, manifested in holiday meals with chosen family, first-date vegetarian suppers, and weeknight meals with partners: a convergence of time, place, culture, and social group as distinctive as that of Roman Jews in the early 1900s. To write a cookbook that captured the Castro in 1987, Unger looked for inspiration in something far less distant. “I knew that other synagogues had developed cookbooks,” she says. An epiphany came when Unger remembered something  had always been around her family’s kitchen when she was a girl.

The Fairmount Cookbook was published in 1948 by the Fairmount Temple Sisterhood, a group of women in a Reform congregation in suburban Cleveland, where Unger’s mother had grown up. “It wasn’t what you might call gourmet,” Unger says , “and it also wasn’t kosher.” One recipe named “The Famous Weenie Casserole” called for brown sugar and an entire bottle of chili sauce. Still, with recipes contributed by the women of the congregation, it had the flavor of shared purpose Unger was searching for.

For the book they’d produce, Unger and her committee settled on donations to the SF AIDS Foundation’s food bank: three dollars from every $12.95 copy. A note inside the front cover would let the reader know to drop off non-perishable grocery items at the synagogue, to be delivered to the AIDS Foundation.

It was a charity cookbook, put together to raise money for a new temple roof or to launch a Hebrew school. Cookbook scholar Juli McLoone, a curator at the University of Michigan Library's Special Collections Research Center at Ann Arbor, says the first American charity cookbook appeared in Philadelphia in 1864. A Poetical Cookbook, by Maria J. Moss, raised funds to improve the living conditions of Union soldiers fighting the Civil War. These books proliferated in the late 19th century, mostly as Protestant church cookbooks. In the early 20th century other organizations, including synagogues like the Fairmount Temple, produced them. “A feature of charity cookbooks,” McLoone says, “is that they were done by women organizing for a cause.” Since theirs was a collaboration by women and men, Sha’ar Zahav was already disrupting the traditional charity cookbook, blurring gender roles the way they did with the Friday night prayer book.

Self-published as a trade paperback in 1987, Sha’ar Zahav’s cookbook is a founding document of queer food at the end of the great lesbian and gay migration. It’s clear that, while Joan Nathan’s book on holiday cooking might have given the cookbook committee ideas for organizing food around occasions, it didn’t copy them. The menus stand like notifications in a queer calendar of significant events from the 1980s: “Coming Out Cocktail Party for 25”; “Gay and Lesbian Pride Day Pre-Parade Buffet”; “Commitment Ceremony Lawn Lunch.” There’s a “Women’s Havurah Potluck Supper” for feminist bonding over tofu loaf, with a noodle kugel named for someone’s Granny Ethel.

The committee spent hours hashing out a title before it came up with Out of Our Kitchen Closets. “The idea was we needed to be out there about who we were,” Unger says. Ralph Frischman, a congregation member with a showy interior design business, knew an artist, Carol Romano, who could illustrate the cover. Romano came up with an impressionistic rainbow that delivers a pile of vegetables and fruits (peppers, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, red cabbage, eggplant), each aligned to one of its six colors.

The order of Romano’s rainbow colors doesn’t match original designer Gilbert Baker’s pride-flag scheme. He stuck green at the top next to yellow, instead of clustering it mid-flag with the cool tones; maybe she decided the bell peppers belonged together. Even so, it works as an allegory. Queer identity, worn as prominently as a rainbow streaks the sky, can turn into something corporeal, a tangible good: food and all its blessings.

So many gays and lesbians who’d come to San Francisco were forced to leave behind the comforts they knew as kids - favorite dishes, holiday nostalgia, the inextinguishable sense-memory of cook smells - no matter how conflicted they might have been about their blood families. The committee argued long over the order of the words in the book’s subtitle, San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking. “We felt that ‘gay,’ ‘Jewish cooking,’ and ‘San Francisco’ were three of the best cards in our hand,” Unger says, “and we had all three together.” The three are in balance: none greater, none lesser than the others.

Unger thinks one of the best things about putting the book together was that members of the congregation had to reach out to mothers and grandparents for recipes they loved. “It created a wonderful way to reconnect in a very positive, meaningful, loving way,” she says. Assembling Out of Our Kitchen Closets was an act of reclaiming those things, and its cover offered a symbol of optimism—of hope—during one of the bleakest times in modern gay history. Though the Sha’ar Zahav cookbook is a work of celebration, AIDS casts a shadow. “Even during the making of the book,” Unger says, “a couple of people who were working on it died.”

The congregation printed 500 copies initially, and demand was robust enough to justify printing 1,500 more. Today it’s scarce; copies on Amazon start at $50. Now and then, one shows up for cheap.

A few years ago, Unger heard about one such copy from an old friend, a woman she first met on a kibbutz in Israel when they were 17. Over the decades they stayed connected. A while back her friend got in touch to say that her son, who was in his twenties and living in New York, had been struggling with coming out. “He realized he was gay,” Unger’s friend told her, “but was really conflicted.” The son had found a copy of Out of Our Kitchen Closets in a thrift store in Manhattan. “He sent it to his mother,” Unger says, “and she opened it up and found my name.”

The scarred book with a rainbow on its cover helped her friend reconnect with her son, which was just, Unger says, “amazing.” After 30 years, a cookbook written in part to alleviate the pain of loss for a queer generation still had solace left to give.

Food And All Its Blessings

How a Queer Jewish Cookbook Served Comfort to a Community Coping with AIDS.

Food And All Its Blessings

Next story

Susan Unger was 26 when she moved to San Francisco. It was 1982 and Unger, a lesbian, found a gay wonderland. She got an apartment at 17th Street and Guerrero, technically the Mission but close enough to the Castro to make Unger feel she’d landed someplace crucial. It was the terminus of a great migration west for gays and lesbians that began in the early 1970s, almost immediately after the Stonewall rebellion in New York.

Unger had a gay older brother, Steven, who had made it to SF first. Together, though on a different schedule, they’d slipped from the physical orbit of their family in Chicago. For lots of gay people, the move to San Francisco or New York was an act of resistance against the gravitational pull of tradition, as if the gay ghettoes’ rainbow flags formed a flapping shield against the forces of hate deployed by outraged strangers and even relatives. Many who came out publicly knew the anguish of rejection by parents. “People being separated from their families, alienated: that was a huge aspect of gay life in San Francisco at that time,” Unger says today, looking back. “So many people had moved there to be their authentic selves.”

And yet, despite the fog that spilled over Twin Peaks and into the Castro most afternoons, San Francisco gleamed. For many who flocked there, it was an experiment in freedom. Even the food was brave and brash and in love with the harvest of the material world.

In 1983 The Village Voice sent its critic, Jeff Weinstein, to witness the burgeoning of new restaurants on the coast, a thing food editors in New York had jammed together under the category “California Cuisine.” That meant anything from grilling over mesquite, to welding Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican ingredients onto vaguely French dishes, to dribbling balsamic vinegar over literally everything. Weinstein ate at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower’s Santa Fe Bar and Grill and wrote, “The mid-sized stage-set city on the bay has a bubbling political life, cultural life, business life, ethnic life, and gay life, but if you happen to see a pair of hands flapping away in the air, punctuating vital conversation, you may assume the party is discussing food.” Food was the language of civic life.

It was the city’s obsession, maybe because so many had come to San Francisco to find a purpose in pleasure, or to probe the senses as a source of wisdom, or at least to glimpse an inkling of meaning in physical experience, like blow jobs on poppers at the back of the leather bars in Soma or group hot-tubbing at the sage-smudged women’s bathhouse on Valencia. Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be. Weinstein had witnessed this in two weeks; Unger learned it nearly as fast.

Though many slipped into San Francisco’s semi-private queer spaces as separate tribes, everybody shared an intimate public relationship with eating. Together, they’d talk about the black bean cakes at Stars, or the orange-zest sticky buns at Zuni’s brunch, or the baked goat cheese at Chez Panisse, and argue what went into a proper mesclun mix, or just how slack a true risotto should be.

She’d taken a job with a revolutionary wholesale produce company, Greenleaf. A couple of gay men started it in 1976, when they’d drive their van to the wee organic farms of Bolinas and Santa Cruz and haul the world’s most beautiful lettuces, figs, tomatoes, and herbs back to SF and Berkeley. Unger became a sales assistant. She took telephone orders and packed crates for the delivery trucks.

A chef might call and ask how the apricots tasted. “I’d eat one,” Unger says, “and describe it to her over the phone.” Producing gorgeous meals in the Bay Area’s restaurants depended on an intricate network of collaborators, a revelation that helped Unger decide, one morning at 3:30 as she pedaled her bike to the produce terminal, to launch a project that would organize a lot of people in San Francisco around a shared purpose of food. It occurred to her to write a cookbook—or, more aptly, orchestrate one—in part to ease the pain of a scourge.

That scourge, of course, was the mysterious and terrifying thing dubbed AIDS in 1982, the year Unger arrived. (It  was previously known as GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency; the epithets “gay cancer” and “the gay plague” would linger for years.)

AIDS was the fear, at first rumbling and easy to dismiss, later quaking and instinct with panic, that shook the Castro and the city around it. An alarming number of young gay men would see their doctor with symptoms (fatigue, spiking fevers) that they could not diagnose. Some would lose their jobs after skin lesions showed; most would be dead within six months. “People were dying very quickly,” Unger says.

She came to feel how loss could gnaw at a loose community, and absolutely waste a tight one. Because Unger didn’t just count herself a member of San Francisco’s tribe of miscellaneous gays and lesbians, she belonged to a synagogue: a queer one in the Castro.

Sha’ar Zahav (“Golden Gate” in Hebrew) came together in 1977, as a Reform congregation intent on outreach to gays and lesbians. Its act of tribal selection was every bit as potent, for queer Jews, as the initial migration to San Francisco. “There is no way to describe how it feels,” wrote an early member, Nancy Meyer, “to choose what is yours and make it your own, surrounded by a beloved synagogue family that knows, cares, and understands what that choice means.” The year Sha’ar Zahav took form, Harvey Milk won his seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Ten years after the start of the gay liberation movement, there were enough authentic selves in San Francisco to braid a strand of queerness into the complicated fabric of civic life. (Though non-religious, Milk showed up at Sha’ar Zahav for Rosh Hashanah services in 1978, less than two months before his assassination.)

Early members of the synagogue wrote non-sexist liturgy for the Friday night prayer book, and later took on the Passover haggadah. The drafting committee wrote parodies satirizing the minefield-crossing effort to reach wording wiped of militarism and the patriarchy. “Bless you, She,” read one, “our almighty but non-aggressive Concept, who creates the crust of the quiche.” They erased the unspoken rules of gender, as a founder recalled of Sha’ar Zahav’s first Chanukah, when men, not women, made the latkes. “In 1977,” Bernard Pechter said, “this was a big thing.”

The tiny synagogue pinged around, meeting first at Glide, a radical Methodist congregation in the Tenderloin, then to other churches, a Buddhist monastery, and a lesbian and gay community center. By 1987 Sha’ar Zahav had 300 regular members, and more than a thousand showed up for the High Holidays. The congregation had acquired a building, an old Mormon church in prim craftsman style, perched on the neighborhood’s tallest hill. It had peaked, mullioned windows like the one in Grant Wood’s American Gothic and a ceiling vaulted with naked beams.

The cookbook Unger pitched to the congregation was to mark all of that, its 10-year anniversary, the successes, and its compassion for those struggling with an ever-present disease, in remembrance of men suddenly absent who would never come again.

“In our discussions,” Unger says, “it was like, ‘Well, we can produce this, but there’s thousands and thousands of cookbooks, why would anybody buy ours?’” Unger searched bookshops for other Jewish cookbooks, to see how they were organized. She bought The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan, published in 1979. Unger’s flash came from another book, The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin, on Jewish cooking—cucina ebraica—as it evolved over hundreds of years in Italy. “It really tells the story of this whole way of life,” she says, “of time and place and culture and social group.”

The queer Jews of Sha’ar Zahav had their own particular way of life, manifested in holiday meals with chosen family, first-date vegetarian suppers, and weeknight meals with partners: a convergence of time, place, culture, and social group as distinctive as that of Roman Jews in the early 1900s. To write a cookbook that captured the Castro in 1987, Unger looked for inspiration in something far less distant. “I knew that other synagogues had developed cookbooks,” she says. An epiphany came when Unger remembered something  had always been around her family’s kitchen when she was a girl.

The Fairmount Cookbook was published in 1948 by the Fairmount Temple Sisterhood, a group of women in a Reform congregation in suburban Cleveland, where Unger’s mother had grown up. “It wasn’t what you might call gourmet,” Unger says , “and it also wasn’t kosher.” One recipe named “The Famous Weenie Casserole” called for brown sugar and an entire bottle of chili sauce. Still, with recipes contributed by the women of the congregation, it had the flavor of shared purpose Unger was searching for.

For the book they’d produce, Unger and her committee settled on donations to the SF AIDS Foundation’s food bank: three dollars from every $12.95 copy. A note inside the front cover would let the reader know to drop off non-perishable grocery items at the synagogue, to be delivered to the AIDS Foundation.

It was a charity cookbook, put together to raise money for a new temple roof or to launch a Hebrew school. Cookbook scholar Juli McLoone, a curator at the University of Michigan Library's Special Collections Research Center at Ann Arbor, says the first American charity cookbook appeared in Philadelphia in 1864. A Poetical Cookbook, by Maria J. Moss, raised funds to improve the living conditions of Union soldiers fighting the Civil War. These books proliferated in the late 19th century, mostly as Protestant church cookbooks. In the early 20th century other organizations, including synagogues like the Fairmount Temple, produced them. “A feature of charity cookbooks,” McLoone says, “is that they were done by women organizing for a cause.” Since theirs was a collaboration by women and men, Sha’ar Zahav was already disrupting the traditional charity cookbook, blurring gender roles the way they did with the Friday night prayer book.

Self-published as a trade paperback in 1987, Sha’ar Zahav’s cookbook is a founding document of queer food at the end of the great lesbian and gay migration. It’s clear that, while Joan Nathan’s book on holiday cooking might have given the cookbook committee ideas for organizing food around occasions, it didn’t copy them. The menus stand like notifications in a queer calendar of significant events from the 1980s: “Coming Out Cocktail Party for 25”; “Gay and Lesbian Pride Day Pre-Parade Buffet”; “Commitment Ceremony Lawn Lunch.” There’s a “Women’s Havurah Potluck Supper” for feminist bonding over tofu loaf, with a noodle kugel named for someone’s Granny Ethel.

The committee spent hours hashing out a title before it came up with Out of Our Kitchen Closets. “The idea was we needed to be out there about who we were,” Unger says. Ralph Frischman, a congregation member with a showy interior design business, knew an artist, Carol Romano, who could illustrate the cover. Romano came up with an impressionistic rainbow that delivers a pile of vegetables and fruits (peppers, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, red cabbage, eggplant), each aligned to one of its six colors.

The order of Romano’s rainbow colors doesn’t match original designer Gilbert Baker’s pride-flag scheme. He stuck green at the top next to yellow, instead of clustering it mid-flag with the cool tones; maybe she decided the bell peppers belonged together. Even so, it works as an allegory. Queer identity, worn as prominently as a rainbow streaks the sky, can turn into something corporeal, a tangible good: food and all its blessings.

So many gays and lesbians who’d come to San Francisco were forced to leave behind the comforts they knew as kids - favorite dishes, holiday nostalgia, the inextinguishable sense-memory of cook smells - no matter how conflicted they might have been about their blood families. The committee argued long over the order of the words in the book’s subtitle, San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking. “We felt that ‘gay,’ ‘Jewish cooking,’ and ‘San Francisco’ were three of the best cards in our hand,” Unger says, “and we had all three together.” The three are in balance: none greater, none lesser than the others.

Unger thinks one of the best things about putting the book together was that members of the congregation had to reach out to mothers and grandparents for recipes they loved. “It created a wonderful way to reconnect in a very positive, meaningful, loving way,” she says. Assembling Out of Our Kitchen Closets was an act of reclaiming those things, and its cover offered a symbol of optimism—of hope—during one of the bleakest times in modern gay history. Though the Sha’ar Zahav cookbook is a work of celebration, AIDS casts a shadow. “Even during the making of the book,” Unger says, “a couple of people who were working on it died.”

The congregation printed 500 copies initially, and demand was robust enough to justify printing 1,500 more. Today it’s scarce; copies on Amazon start at $50. Now and then, one shows up for cheap.

A few years ago, Unger heard about one such copy from an old friend, a woman she first met on a kibbutz in Israel when they were 17. Over the decades they stayed connected. A while back her friend got in touch to say that her son, who was in his twenties and living in New York, had been struggling with coming out. “He realized he was gay,” Unger’s friend told her, “but was really conflicted.” The son had found a copy of Out of Our Kitchen Closets in a thrift store in Manhattan. “He sent it to his mother,” Unger says, “and she opened it up and found my name.”

The scarred book with a rainbow on its cover helped her friend reconnect with her son, which was just, Unger says, “amazing.” After 30 years, a cookbook written in part to alleviate the pain of loss for a queer generation still had solace left to give.

Green Mole

Green Mole

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A tarot card reader suggested I go to the coast, to shake myself of a crushing depression. So I did. The Pacific Coast of Mexico, to be exact, to a tiny beach town called Mazunte, in the state of Oaxaca. The town was once a center for processing sea turtle meat, before those majestic creatures became protected under law. It is now primarily thought of as a location one might go to surround herself with white Europeans in dreadlocks or the type of person whose idea of a full day is guessing strangers’ ayurvedic dispositions over kombucha—though obviously those categories are not mutually exclusive.

All that mattered to me was that there would be miles of crystal water, overgrown trails to explore, a quiet place to unravel after what has been a very difficult year. Every morning, when it was still dark, I hiked two miles out to Punta Cometa, a rocky cliff comprising the southernmost point of Mexico. Immense white-capped waves broke against rocks hundreds of feet below and I’d sit saturated by salt air, watching the sun, a bright red-orange disc, ascend the horizon, before hiking back to my cabana to have chilaquiles or entomatadas with a tiny band of revolving transients who kept putting off the task of buying return tickets home.

vOne morning, Justin, a blonde guy covered in skull tattoos and thin gold chains worn over his tank top, appeared at the breakfast table hand rolling cigarettes on one knee. He had piercing blue eyes and spoke enthusiastically about his Harley and his work back in Vancouver as a welder. He was in Mazunte taking some time off while his back healed, but he could imagine just buying some property out here and, like, really living. “Well, I’m off to the beach,” he told me wistfully as he finished his coffee, slinging a towel around his shoulder as if it were a leather jacket.

Adriana, the Mexican woman who managed our cabana and cooked breakfast every morning, rushed out of the kitchen as soon as he was out of earshot. “Wei, he’s so handsome,” she cooed, at me. “I like him,” she said, explaining that they had met at a bar the previous night and she’d persuaded him to come stay at our cabana.

“Canadians are very likeable!” I responded, attempting diplomacy. But she wasn’t paying attention, gazing dreamily into the distance. She deflated suddenly, plopping down next to me and stroking a puppy that had been nipping at our feet.

“He has a girlfriend,” she said, rolling her eyes. I looked at her, her long black hair falling in waves around her face. She was sullen as she brushed back the little dog’s fur with her fingertips. I wondered if I should reassure her that there were of, course, plenty more fuckboys in the sea, but she looked up at me suddenly, grinning mischievously. “He told me they’ve been fighting,” she said, then winked.

The rhythm of the subsequent days, the narrowing of space between two strangers in the throes of a crush, felt obvious and even comforting to observe. I sleepily followed along while eating breakfast each morning. After Justin left, Adriana would fill me in on her progress while I helped her wash dishes. She’d wail with the agony of being in love. “I don’t know if he likes me,” she’d moan, her head in her hands.

At first, they would meet at the beach in the afternoons to swim and share a pina colada. Then, they began going out all night, drinking late into the wee hours. Many mornings they’d arrive to the breakfast table bleary-eyed, bodies heavy and hair tousled. Within a week, they were inseparable, Justin’s fingers skimming over Adriana’s shoulders as he said goodbye and left for the beach in the mornings. What did they talk about, I once asked Adri. “He just talks crazy, I don’t know,” she told me. “I can’t understand a lot of it. His accent is crazy when he talks fast.” She shrugged. “I just smile and laugh.”

She also cooked. One afternoon, on my way into town for lunch, I caught her humming to herself in the cocina while mixing maseca and water. The air smelled sweet and dense, like mud and I watched as she rolled sticky balls of masa in her palms until they were smooth, then pressed her thumb into each, to make a dimple. Chochoyutes, she explained, masa dumplings.

Soon, I learned that if I arrived back at the cocina just as the sun was setting I might also partake in whatever feast Adriana was preparing. I moved quickly from the sidelines of the relationship into the action, mirroring back to the couple what they wanted to see for themselves, giving them a place to perform their newly shared identity. For my contributions, I was rewarded with quesadillas stuffed fat with fresh shrimp from the sea, tangy sweet ceviches and black mole as dark as earth. There were complicated spiced stews, creamy heirloom beans, thick homemade tortillas. If I had rolled my eyes at Justin in the beginning, now I had no reservations, jumping at any opportunity to muse about what a terrific guy he was to Adri, that it didn’t seem like he liked his girlfriend at home very much at all. So, our lives proceeded in this manner, Adri and Justin growing closer to one another, and me, always on time to mooch off of the fruits of love's labor.

“We had sex!” Adriana announced brightly to me one morning, a month or so into their romance. There had been no breakfast that day; I was at the breakfast table gnawing on mango skins. She loped up the steps, with a big smile and took my hands in hers as she recounted her triumph. “Eh, I don’t really remember much, just that I woke up in his bed this morning,” she laughed. “He asked me if I remember doing it in the shower last night.” I hugged her and told her I was thrilled, and she went on to say that she was a little sad because Justin told her that he had to go back to Canada at the end of the week. But, they’d been talking about starting a restaurant together in Mazunte, sharing a life in the middle of nowhere. “He’s a good guy,” she said. “I know he’ll come back.”

I choked a little on my spit, as the reality of of the situation dawned on me. Adriana didn’t think of this as some silly summer fling - she saw it as a lifeline, a future. It may have been abundantly clear to me that Justin was just a superficial asshole intent on hedonism with impunity, but to Adriana, he was a glimmer of hope. Justin had always has the choice of returning to his old life, to his old girlfriend, to an expanse of possibilities just a plane ride away. But Adriana was here. I willed myself out of my pessimism, but within days, the pleasant first blushes of romance fell away to the painful cliches of relationship endings. A tearful goodbye, promises of letters, calls, and a quick return. Days passed with increasing silence, Facebook messages became fewer and farther between. Adri stayed in bed late and barely left her room, bellowing along to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in the sweltering afternoons. I took to going into town each evening for sub-par lengua tacos and bags of limon-flavored Frito chips.

Soon, it was time for me to leave as well. I felt better, less anxious, more like myself. My circadian rhythms returned; the dark circles had disappeared from my eyes. I didn’t want to make a big deal about the fact that I was leaving, so I only mentioned it to Adriana at breakfast, a few days before my flight. “Nooooo,” she moaned at first. “Okay,” she said, regaining composure. “So we have to drink mezcal,” she said.

The night before my flight, we drank tecates while Adri rinsed out bunches of fresh herbs in the cocina—handfuls of parsley, cilantro, epazote, and hoja santa, fresh from the garden outside the cabana. She instructed me to knead masa until it has the consistency of pizza dough. We were making mole verde, she said, her family’s secret recipe.  

“You know, Justin. I’m starting to think maybe he’s not good,” she said, chopping tomatillos and adding them to the the blender with the herbs. “He always says he’ll do things and he doesn’t. I was just crazy when he was here.”

She strained the liquid in the blender, a bright green mixture, into a pot simmering with stock and pork bones, then motioned for me to add masa into the grassy clump that was left in the blender.

“I know he’s back with his girlfriend in Canada,” she said. “I saw photos on Facebook.” She hit the button and the masa turned a brilliant chartreuse. She poured the mixture into the pot and turned the heat up. “It’s okay. Now I can go back to work, study to be an attorney, think about starting my own restaurante.” She placed a lid on the pot and turned to me. “Now we wait,” she said, “and drink!”

I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands.

I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands. “I ordered you a necklace from Oaxaca, but I didn’t know you were leaving so soon!” she said to me, her eyes soft. She showed me a photograph of it on her phone, it was a beaded choker with an enormous handmade red ceramic heart hanging from its center. “I know roja is your favorite color,” she said softly, before returning into the kitchen to check on the mole.

I looked out at the pink sky and the bright red sun, dipping just below the horizon of the sea, for the final time before I returned to my life in New York, feeling nostalgic already for the immense natural beauty I’d had the luck to recover in. But suddenly it dawned on me that my recovery has less to do with the sea or fresh air than it has to do with Adri, with the rich and loving world she’d allowed me into in such a short period of time. I’d just been too distracted by idle gossip to notice.

Adriana set two shallow bowls on the table each with tender neck bones immersed in a kelly green broth, flecked with bits of herbs, made supple by masa. I folded up a warm tortilla and dipped it into the mole It tasted bright green, like sucking on a slice of lime, like a cooling breeze, like tender grass poking through topsoil, like spring.

Green Mole

Green Mole

Next story

A tarot card reader suggested I go to the coast, to shake myself of a crushing depression. So I did. The Pacific Coast of Mexico, to be exact, to a tiny beach town called Mazunte, in the state of Oaxaca. The town was once a center for processing sea turtle meat, before those majestic creatures became protected under law. It is now primarily thought of as a location one might go to surround herself with white Europeans in dreadlocks or the type of person whose idea of a full day is guessing strangers’ ayurvedic dispositions over kombucha—though obviously those categories are not mutually exclusive.

All that mattered to me was that there would be miles of crystal water, overgrown trails to explore, a quiet place to unravel after what has been a very difficult year. Every morning, when it was still dark, I hiked two miles out to Punta Cometa, a rocky cliff comprising the southernmost point of Mexico. Immense white-capped waves broke against rocks hundreds of feet below and I’d sit saturated by salt air, watching the sun, a bright red-orange disc, ascend the horizon, before hiking back to my cabana to have chilaquiles or entomatadas with a tiny band of revolving transients who kept putting off the task of buying return tickets home.

vOne morning, Justin, a blonde guy covered in skull tattoos and thin gold chains worn over his tank top, appeared at the breakfast table hand rolling cigarettes on one knee. He had piercing blue eyes and spoke enthusiastically about his Harley and his work back in Vancouver as a welder. He was in Mazunte taking some time off while his back healed, but he could imagine just buying some property out here and, like, really living. “Well, I’m off to the beach,” he told me wistfully as he finished his coffee, slinging a towel around his shoulder as if it were a leather jacket.

Adriana, the Mexican woman who managed our cabana and cooked breakfast every morning, rushed out of the kitchen as soon as he was out of earshot. “Wei, he’s so handsome,” she cooed, at me. “I like him,” she said, explaining that they had met at a bar the previous night and she’d persuaded him to come stay at our cabana.

“Canadians are very likeable!” I responded, attempting diplomacy. But she wasn’t paying attention, gazing dreamily into the distance. She deflated suddenly, plopping down next to me and stroking a puppy that had been nipping at our feet.

“He has a girlfriend,” she said, rolling her eyes. I looked at her, her long black hair falling in waves around her face. She was sullen as she brushed back the little dog’s fur with her fingertips. I wondered if I should reassure her that there were of, course, plenty more fuckboys in the sea, but she looked up at me suddenly, grinning mischievously. “He told me they’ve been fighting,” she said, then winked.

The rhythm of the subsequent days, the narrowing of space between two strangers in the throes of a crush, felt obvious and even comforting to observe. I sleepily followed along while eating breakfast each morning. After Justin left, Adriana would fill me in on her progress while I helped her wash dishes. She’d wail with the agony of being in love. “I don’t know if he likes me,” she’d moan, her head in her hands.

At first, they would meet at the beach in the afternoons to swim and share a pina colada. Then, they began going out all night, drinking late into the wee hours. Many mornings they’d arrive to the breakfast table bleary-eyed, bodies heavy and hair tousled. Within a week, they were inseparable, Justin’s fingers skimming over Adriana’s shoulders as he said goodbye and left for the beach in the mornings. What did they talk about, I once asked Adri. “He just talks crazy, I don’t know,” she told me. “I can’t understand a lot of it. His accent is crazy when he talks fast.” She shrugged. “I just smile and laugh.”

She also cooked. One afternoon, on my way into town for lunch, I caught her humming to herself in the cocina while mixing maseca and water. The air smelled sweet and dense, like mud and I watched as she rolled sticky balls of masa in her palms until they were smooth, then pressed her thumb into each, to make a dimple. Chochoyutes, she explained, masa dumplings.

Soon, I learned that if I arrived back at the cocina just as the sun was setting I might also partake in whatever feast Adriana was preparing. I moved quickly from the sidelines of the relationship into the action, mirroring back to the couple what they wanted to see for themselves, giving them a place to perform their newly shared identity. For my contributions, I was rewarded with quesadillas stuffed fat with fresh shrimp from the sea, tangy sweet ceviches and black mole as dark as earth. There were complicated spiced stews, creamy heirloom beans, thick homemade tortillas. If I had rolled my eyes at Justin in the beginning, now I had no reservations, jumping at any opportunity to muse about what a terrific guy he was to Adri, that it didn’t seem like he liked his girlfriend at home very much at all. So, our lives proceeded in this manner, Adri and Justin growing closer to one another, and me, always on time to mooch off of the fruits of love's labor.

“We had sex!” Adriana announced brightly to me one morning, a month or so into their romance. There had been no breakfast that day; I was at the breakfast table gnawing on mango skins. She loped up the steps, with a big smile and took my hands in hers as she recounted her triumph. “Eh, I don’t really remember much, just that I woke up in his bed this morning,” she laughed. “He asked me if I remember doing it in the shower last night.” I hugged her and told her I was thrilled, and she went on to say that she was a little sad because Justin told her that he had to go back to Canada at the end of the week. But, they’d been talking about starting a restaurant together in Mazunte, sharing a life in the middle of nowhere. “He’s a good guy,” she said. “I know he’ll come back.”

I choked a little on my spit, as the reality of of the situation dawned on me. Adriana didn’t think of this as some silly summer fling - she saw it as a lifeline, a future. It may have been abundantly clear to me that Justin was just a superficial asshole intent on hedonism with impunity, but to Adriana, he was a glimmer of hope. Justin had always has the choice of returning to his old life, to his old girlfriend, to an expanse of possibilities just a plane ride away. But Adriana was here. I willed myself out of my pessimism, but within days, the pleasant first blushes of romance fell away to the painful cliches of relationship endings. A tearful goodbye, promises of letters, calls, and a quick return. Days passed with increasing silence, Facebook messages became fewer and farther between. Adri stayed in bed late and barely left her room, bellowing along to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in the sweltering afternoons. I took to going into town each evening for sub-par lengua tacos and bags of limon-flavored Frito chips.

Soon, it was time for me to leave as well. I felt better, less anxious, more like myself. My circadian rhythms returned; the dark circles had disappeared from my eyes. I didn’t want to make a big deal about the fact that I was leaving, so I only mentioned it to Adriana at breakfast, a few days before my flight. “Nooooo,” she moaned at first. “Okay,” she said, regaining composure. “So we have to drink mezcal,” she said.

The night before my flight, we drank tecates while Adri rinsed out bunches of fresh herbs in the cocina—handfuls of parsley, cilantro, epazote, and hoja santa, fresh from the garden outside the cabana. She instructed me to knead masa until it has the consistency of pizza dough. We were making mole verde, she said, her family’s secret recipe.  

“You know, Justin. I’m starting to think maybe he’s not good,” she said, chopping tomatillos and adding them to the the blender with the herbs. “He always says he’ll do things and he doesn’t. I was just crazy when he was here.”

She strained the liquid in the blender, a bright green mixture, into a pot simmering with stock and pork bones, then motioned for me to add masa into the grassy clump that was left in the blender.

“I know he’s back with his girlfriend in Canada,” she said. “I saw photos on Facebook.” She hit the button and the masa turned a brilliant chartreuse. She poured the mixture into the pot and turned the heat up. “It’s okay. Now I can go back to work, study to be an attorney, think about starting my own restaurante.” She placed a lid on the pot and turned to me. “Now we wait,” she said, “and drink!”

I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands.

I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands. “I ordered you a necklace from Oaxaca, but I didn’t know you were leaving so soon!” she said to me, her eyes soft. She showed me a photograph of it on her phone, it was a beaded choker with an enormous handmade red ceramic heart hanging from its center. “I know roja is your favorite color,” she said softly, before returning into the kitchen to check on the mole.

I looked out at the pink sky and the bright red sun, dipping just below the horizon of the sea, for the final time before I returned to my life in New York, feeling nostalgic already for the immense natural beauty I’d had the luck to recover in. But suddenly it dawned on me that my recovery has less to do with the sea or fresh air than it has to do with Adri, with the rich and loving world she’d allowed me into in such a short period of time. I’d just been too distracted by idle gossip to notice.

Adriana set two shallow bowls on the table each with tender neck bones immersed in a kelly green broth, flecked with bits of herbs, made supple by masa. I folded up a warm tortilla and dipped it into the mole It tasted bright green, like sucking on a slice of lime, like a cooling breeze, like tender grass poking through topsoil, like spring.

Green Mole

Green Mole

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A tarot card reader suggested I go to the coast, to shake myself of a crushing depression. So I did. The Pacific Coast of Mexico, to be exact, to a tiny beach town called Mazunte, in the state of Oaxaca. The town was once a center for processing sea turtle meat, before those majestic creatures became protected under law. It is now primarily thought of as a location one might go to surround herself with white Europeans in dreadlocks or the type of person whose idea of a full day is guessing strangers’ ayurvedic dispositions over kombucha—though obviously those categories are not mutually exclusive.

All that mattered to me was that there would be miles of crystal water, overgrown trails to explore, a quiet place to unravel after what has been a very difficult year. Every morning, when it was still dark, I hiked two miles out to Punta Cometa, a rocky cliff comprising the southernmost point of Mexico. Immense white-capped waves broke against rocks hundreds of feet below and I’d sit saturated by salt air, watching the sun, a bright red-orange disc, ascend the horizon, before hiking back to my cabana to have chilaquiles or entomatadas with a tiny band of revolving transients who kept putting off the task of buying return tickets home.

vOne morning, Justin, a blonde guy covered in skull tattoos and thin gold chains worn over his tank top, appeared at the breakfast table hand rolling cigarettes on one knee. He had piercing blue eyes and spoke enthusiastically about his Harley and his work back in Vancouver as a welder. He was in Mazunte taking some time off while his back healed, but he could imagine just buying some property out here and, like, really living. “Well, I’m off to the beach,” he told me wistfully as he finished his coffee, slinging a towel around his shoulder as if it were a leather jacket.

Adriana, the Mexican woman who managed our cabana and cooked breakfast every morning, rushed out of the kitchen as soon as he was out of earshot. “Wei, he’s so handsome,” she cooed, at me. “I like him,” she said, explaining that they had met at a bar the previous night and she’d persuaded him to come stay at our cabana.

“Canadians are very likeable!” I responded, attempting diplomacy. But she wasn’t paying attention, gazing dreamily into the distance. She deflated suddenly, plopping down next to me and stroking a puppy that had been nipping at our feet.

“He has a girlfriend,” she said, rolling her eyes. I looked at her, her long black hair falling in waves around her face. She was sullen as she brushed back the little dog’s fur with her fingertips. I wondered if I should reassure her that there were of, course, plenty more fuckboys in the sea, but she looked up at me suddenly, grinning mischievously. “He told me they’ve been fighting,” she said, then winked.

The rhythm of the subsequent days, the narrowing of space between two strangers in the throes of a crush, felt obvious and even comforting to observe. I sleepily followed along while eating breakfast each morning. After Justin left, Adriana would fill me in on her progress while I helped her wash dishes. She’d wail with the agony of being in love. “I don’t know if he likes me,” she’d moan, her head in her hands.

At first, they would meet at the beach in the afternoons to swim and share a pina colada. Then, they began going out all night, drinking late into the wee hours. Many mornings they’d arrive to the breakfast table bleary-eyed, bodies heavy and hair tousled. Within a week, they were inseparable, Justin’s fingers skimming over Adriana’s shoulders as he said goodbye and left for the beach in the mornings. What did they talk about, I once asked Adri. “He just talks crazy, I don’t know,” she told me. “I can’t understand a lot of it. His accent is crazy when he talks fast.” She shrugged. “I just smile and laugh.”

She also cooked. One afternoon, on my way into town for lunch, I caught her humming to herself in the cocina while mixing maseca and water. The air smelled sweet and dense, like mud and I watched as she rolled sticky balls of masa in her palms until they were smooth, then pressed her thumb into each, to make a dimple. Chochoyutes, she explained, masa dumplings.

Soon, I learned that if I arrived back at the cocina just as the sun was setting I might also partake in whatever feast Adriana was preparing. I moved quickly from the sidelines of the relationship into the action, mirroring back to the couple what they wanted to see for themselves, giving them a place to perform their newly shared identity. For my contributions, I was rewarded with quesadillas stuffed fat with fresh shrimp from the sea, tangy sweet ceviches and black mole as dark as earth. There were complicated spiced stews, creamy heirloom beans, thick homemade tortillas. If I had rolled my eyes at Justin in the beginning, now I had no reservations, jumping at any opportunity to muse about what a terrific guy he was to Adri, that it didn’t seem like he liked his girlfriend at home very much at all. So, our lives proceeded in this manner, Adri and Justin growing closer to one another, and me, always on time to mooch off of the fruits of love's labor.

“We had sex!” Adriana announced brightly to me one morning, a month or so into their romance. There had been no breakfast that day; I was at the breakfast table gnawing on mango skins. She loped up the steps, with a big smile and took my hands in hers as she recounted her triumph. “Eh, I don’t really remember much, just that I woke up in his bed this morning,” she laughed. “He asked me if I remember doing it in the shower last night.” I hugged her and told her I was thrilled, and she went on to say that she was a little sad because Justin told her that he had to go back to Canada at the end of the week. But, they’d been talking about starting a restaurant together in Mazunte, sharing a life in the middle of nowhere. “He’s a good guy,” she said. “I know he’ll come back.”

I choked a little on my spit, as the reality of of the situation dawned on me. Adriana didn’t think of this as some silly summer fling - she saw it as a lifeline, a future. It may have been abundantly clear to me that Justin was just a superficial asshole intent on hedonism with impunity, but to Adriana, he was a glimmer of hope. Justin had always has the choice of returning to his old life, to his old girlfriend, to an expanse of possibilities just a plane ride away. But Adriana was here. I willed myself out of my pessimism, but within days, the pleasant first blushes of romance fell away to the painful cliches of relationship endings. A tearful goodbye, promises of letters, calls, and a quick return. Days passed with increasing silence, Facebook messages became fewer and farther between. Adri stayed in bed late and barely left her room, bellowing along to “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in the sweltering afternoons. I took to going into town each evening for sub-par lengua tacos and bags of limon-flavored Frito chips.

Soon, it was time for me to leave as well. I felt better, less anxious, more like myself. My circadian rhythms returned; the dark circles had disappeared from my eyes. I didn’t want to make a big deal about the fact that I was leaving, so I only mentioned it to Adriana at breakfast, a few days before my flight. “Nooooo,” she moaned at first. “Okay,” she said, regaining composure. “So we have to drink mezcal,” she said.

The night before my flight, we drank tecates while Adri rinsed out bunches of fresh herbs in the cocina—handfuls of parsley, cilantro, epazote, and hoja santa, fresh from the garden outside the cabana. She instructed me to knead masa until it has the consistency of pizza dough. We were making mole verde, she said, her family’s secret recipe.  

“You know, Justin. I’m starting to think maybe he’s not good,” she said, chopping tomatillos and adding them to the the blender with the herbs. “He always says he’ll do things and he doesn’t. I was just crazy when he was here.”

She strained the liquid in the blender, a bright green mixture, into a pot simmering with stock and pork bones, then motioned for me to add masa into the grassy clump that was left in the blender.

“I know he’s back with his girlfriend in Canada,” she said. “I saw photos on Facebook.” She hit the button and the masa turned a brilliant chartreuse. She poured the mixture into the pot and turned the heat up. “It’s okay. Now I can go back to work, study to be an attorney, think about starting my own restaurante.” She placed a lid on the pot and turned to me. “Now we wait,” she said, “and drink!”

I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands.

I poured shots of mezcal on the counter as the light began to leave the sky, and we were quiet for a minute as we drank, the liquor burning down my throat. She slammed her glass down and put her head in her hands. “I ordered you a necklace from Oaxaca, but I didn’t know you were leaving so soon!” she said to me, her eyes soft. She showed me a photograph of it on her phone, it was a beaded choker with an enormous handmade red ceramic heart hanging from its center. “I know roja is your favorite color,” she said softly, before returning into the kitchen to check on the mole.

I looked out at the pink sky and the bright red sun, dipping just below the horizon of the sea, for the final time before I returned to my life in New York, feeling nostalgic already for the immense natural beauty I’d had the luck to recover in. But suddenly it dawned on me that my recovery has less to do with the sea or fresh air than it has to do with Adri, with the rich and loving world she’d allowed me into in such a short period of time. I’d just been too distracted by idle gossip to notice.

Adriana set two shallow bowls on the table each with tender neck bones immersed in a kelly green broth, flecked with bits of herbs, made supple by masa. I folded up a warm tortilla and dipped it into the mole It tasted bright green, like sucking on a slice of lime, like a cooling breeze, like tender grass poking through topsoil, like spring.

Breaking Bread in Little Baghdad

Breaking Bread in Little Baghdad

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Start in downtown San Diego and drive east. The further you go, the cheaper the rent. Elected officials get redder, poverty rates get higher, and refugee resettlement numbers get bigger. Billboards for gun expos line the freeway, and there’s a hole-in-the-wall falafel shop on every corner.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the fallout resulted in more than three million Iraqis being forced from their homes. Over 18,000 of them resettled in San Diego County. As rent goes up closer to the ocean, refugee resettlement agencies are placing new arrivals in areas further east like El Cajon, a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Baghdad.” Storefronts are full of Arabic script, markets are full of Arabic ingredients, and apartment complexes are full of Arabic conversation. Iraqi cuisine offerings are ample, ranging from $2 sandwich shops to higher-end, sit-down fare.

While East County is known for its Middle Eastern communities, it is also known for its conservative politics. California’s 50th district is represented by staunch conservative Duncan Hunter, who also happens to be an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. On a national level, Donald Trump’s policies have resulted in fewer refugees arriving in the country from Muslim majority countries, including Iraq. At the close of the 2018 fiscal year, San Diego’s annual incoming Iraqi refugee count came to exactly 12, compared to thousands in past years.

In the context of the local and national political climate, social tensions can run high among the various communities of El Cajon. Here, the Iraqi food scene offers an opportunity for cultural exchange. As one Iraqi resident explains, eating at East County restaurants helps people learn about another culture’s “mentality, how they live, how they help people, how they eat food.”

Al Azayem sits in the heart of Little Baghdad on Main Street, sharing a dusty parking lot with an optical shop, a barber, and a tailor. A more casual, diner-style Iraqi eatery, Al Azayem features a wide menu, a high turnover, and freshly-made offerings that draw hungry Iraqi and non-Iraqi customers alike. Customers pay at the counter and take-out orders abound--but those who dine in are treated to Iraqi hospitality, as restaurant staff eagerly run around providing bread, soup, and salad free of charge. A combo intended for three people includes six juicy, spicy chicken and beef kabobs plus a pound of chicken and beef shawarma on the side. American flags and “I Voted” stickers adorn the register, while Arabic soccer commentary blares from a TV.

Eight years ago, US forces left Iraq in accordance with the US-Iraqi agreement to withdraw. Five years ago, they returned to combat ISIS. While stability, security, and peace have yet to return to Iraq, those displaced by the conflict continue to build their lives in new homes. Mazin Majeed, the owner of Al Azayem, arrived from Iraq as a refugee in 2009 and opened the restaurant in 2012. He says that the flavors and freshness of his food are as authentic as possible, but it’s still not the same as eating it in Iraq. “You love it over there, but what do you do?” he says. “Do I miss Iraq? No. I miss the Iraq from before, yes. But not Iraq now.”

Seven thousand miles away from the battlefield, Majeed serves his favorite, beloved dishes to Iraqis and Americans alike. His diverse clientele shares polished black tables and sugar shakers, tearing chunks of fresh saj bread to dip into soup. Their experiences of the US-Iraq War are drastically different, but they share a craving for Iraqi food.

Lunchtime diners at Al Azayem--teenagers, coworkers, families, and lone diners-- answer the same five questions about home, belonging, food, war, and goodbyes. They talk of home in El Cajon, Iraq, Mexico, Lebanon, Dubai, and across the United States. Their stories paint pictures of shawarma, George Bush, grandmothers, B-52 bombers, losing dignity, and life as a marine. Their perspectives resist any universal truths, except for one thing: an appreciation for good food, cheap prices, and great customer service.

Customer 1
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

We are all human beings. The group that is most important for me is human beings.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

I eat here almost everyday, and I grab some food for my non-Iraqi friends. They like it so much. I feel Iraqi food is more healthy. Everything we use, we just cook it together--vegetables and other things--and there we go. It’s fresh.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Yes, sure. Because here, I feel safe, and I feel happy. I'm part of a leadership academy, and I’m volunteering and advocating for many things over here. Home is when you feel you are existing in this world: when people are asking about you, people are taking care of you, you are important for them, and you are real.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

The most important thing that I left? My kids. In Iraq. They’re still there with my ex-husband. This is the most painful thing. I’m trying to work on this, and make myself ok. And they are twins, baby boys, still babies. In February 2019, they will be three years.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

Well it’s a big error, that war. Because when it happened, it was about political things--which are not real things. But the people who paid for it are the innocent people who died. I was in the middle of everything. We never left our houses, just stayed inside for our safety. We would hear bombing. We heard airplanes. We heard all different sounds. I can still remember the sound of the B-52, F-18, F-16…We stayed inside and listened. For years. And after that, we said, "Ok, the war is ended," and started doing our activities. But then other things came up, Sunni and Shiite problems. People started killing each other, and then ISIS came over, and then we had a lot of problems in Iraq…A lot of problems. Now, every time when we pass over a problem, something else will come up. My country never became stable after the war.

Customer 2
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

Sports people. American football. I was born in Iraq, but then I came when I was 5. / I came when I was 10.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

We were trying to get Subway, but he forgot his money. / So we came to my dad because he works right around the corner. I got some money from my dad and we came here. / And we came here because it tastes good. / It’s our food, because we’re Middle Eastern. We’re used to it. / When we eat it for the first time in a long time, we finally feel full.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Kind of, because everything we know is around here. We’ve been here for a while. / I feel home when I feel comfortable and I’m used to stuff.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

My grandma and grandpa, we had to leave them behind when we came here. But then six years later they came too, so now we’re together again. / For my situation, I was in Iraq with all my family there. But then there was an explosion outside my house, in my front yard. So then my dad thought it was really unsafe, and we moved to Lebanon. We stayed there for two years, and then we came here. It’s been five, six years? I had to leave my whole family behind and we’re still not connected.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I don’t remember anything about that. We don’t know anything. My mom told me I was born during the war, in 2003. That’s all I heard about the war. She didn’t tell me about what it was like to give birth during the war. They don’t like talking about it. / We’re not interested in that stuff. / Yeah / We don’t really ask, but they discuss it among themselves. Sometimes they refer to it, and they'll say, "If you were in Iraq you would have been getting an ass whooping."

Customer 3
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

Well, we’re Iraqis. We’re from Iraq. We’re just regular locals.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

This particular restaurant, it tastes really good. It’s really similar to the food from when I grew up. The cook’s really good, you can smell. My mom said you’re my guest, you want to eat something?

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

No, no. This doesn't feel like home. My mom says it’s safe, but it doesn’t feel the same. She says home is having a reliable life, a stable life. We’re not stable and happy because we’ve been through a lot. She says we feel like we got humiliated by some people in this country. They don’t treat us right because they think we are not from here. When we were in Iraq, nobody can tell us, “This is not your country, go home.” This country . . . I love it, it’s a beautiful country. But you got a bunch of people who tell you to go home. So that . . . that hurts. My mom says food doesn’t make me feel happy, or like I'm home. She says, I could survive by eating bread and onions and be happy. With my country, I have my dignity, and people honor and respect me.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

So my mom said, a lot of countries, they kind of came and got into Iraq's business, and they ruined the country. They did not know who was who. Before, it was a beautiful country. It was stable. Safe. So it was not easy at all to make the decision to leave.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

My brother, the Iraqi militia shot him in the foot. They kidnapped my little brother. They chased my other brother and they shot him three, four times, but he survived. They shot me. And they kidnapped my dad, tortured him to death. It was during the time the US was there. It wasn’t secure. Nobody cared. And now here, my mom wears a hijab. People don’t even know our story. All they know is that they don’t like you. "Get out of here!" They forget that all the other Americans are immigrants, except the natives. America is strong because we’re combined. A lot of people don’t understand this. They judge what they see. But they don’t realize I worked with the US for many years. I saved so many marines in my life. Thousands of troops. I met President Bush--he’s the one that brought me here. He gave me the presidential coin and said, "I want this guy to be in the US in the next year." What can we do? We try to survive.

Customer 4
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

My family and friends. It’s hard to feel an alliance with the US, right now, for me. I guess the world? And San Diego? Also, I cannot be friends with people who have an interest in low quality food. Honestly. Like, it has to be good food. Like, you know, I cook a lot, and so that’s important to me because one of the things that I derive pleasure from is being able to cook a nice meal for friends and having them have the context to appreciate it. And if someone is just like, going to Denny’s or something, it’s just like . . . I know I can’t trust your opinion on food, and what else can’t I trust your opinion on?

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

It’s delicious, and I live in San Diego, so I was out hiking, and pretty much any time I go east of here out hiking, I make a point to stop at this restaurant on my way back. It’s just, to me, El Cajon, I think of Iraqi food. The spice blends, you get all the different combinations. With Middle Eastern food specifically, it was the first time I knew that there was cinnamon in the meat that I was eating, and it shocked me, right? Like, wait, what? I can do that? Because to me I’d only ever associated cinnamon with sweets and things like that. After I’ve hiked, I’m generally in a good mood, because I’m feeling kind of free and everything. It doesn’t have to be a celebration, but it’s . . . I don’t know, I mean, to have food curiosity is kind of the same as having intellectual curiosity. Or it is intellectual curiosity. It’s the ability to be surprised. If I’m going to an American restaurant, or only ever going to Italian restaurants, or whatever it happens to be--it’s very difficult to surprise you. I mean they could, but a very easy way to be surprised is just to go to other culture’s cuisines.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

It does not. I mean, I’ve got a daughter now, so I have her and my wife, and we have a small but close group of friends…so it feels the most home since anywhere in a long time. Feeling like home is the food for me. Having access to good food, but also the ingredients. Food plays a part, but it’s probably more the people.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

So I lived in Brazil for about three years, and I love the place. But unfortunately I had to leave there. I mean it wasn’t devastating, it was time to move on, but, yeah I don’t know. I was in the northeast in a city called El Salvador, and it’s just a really rich city culturally, and it has a very strong music environment. It’s got a really interesting cuisine, there were really strong flavors . . . It wasn’t my home country, so there’s different things involved with that, you know. I was always seen as an outsider there. There was no way I could not be. Of that specific city at least 90% of that city has at least mixed African blood. I’m much taller than the people there, lighter skinned than the people there, so I was always seen as an outsider. The Brazilians were incredibly nice to me and everything else, so that wasn’t an issue, but it’s just, there’s cultural things you may not understand, and whatever else. And then, you know, I was leaving a place with crystal clear waters, fantastic beaches. And the second time I was leaving, I was leaving not to come to San Diego, but Kentucky, and I’d never been there before. So it was just like, leaving here, to go to Kentucky. My brother lived there at the time so it was ok, but it was a shock to me. And not only that, it’s just having that different perspective. I'm coming back and I’m looking at things with a critical eye in the United States. And while I was in Brazil, I’d heard people saying there's almost more of a culture shock going back to your own country because you weren’t expecting it. Right? You’re expecting to be able to just slop back in and not having anything. But so I come back, and yeah, it’s a shock to the system.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I was in the Marine Corps prior to the war. I got out on August 30, 2001. I had been on a deployment, and we were in Bahrain when the USS Cole got bombed so we had to go over there to help recover the ship. So I’m coming back as the ramp-up was happening. You had all the rhetoric of Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and Bush, talking about the war and leading up to it. And I just remember thinking . . . It felt like the lies that were told to us when I was in the military. It was the same formula for the lies that we got told for why we were doing something, when the reason--there was no reason, it was just--whatever, you know, hate. To me it seems like you don’t truly have legitimate reasons to go to Iraq, so you’re creating them. And the fact that you’re lying to me about certain things, it just doesn’t seem right. It’s difficult, because I know people who left Iraq prior to the war because Saddam Hussein started persecuting minority groups and things like that. It was obviously not a good situation, but we made it even less stable by going there. So the specifics of the war itself? Honestly I don’t remember much about it, which is an odd thing. I did not want to be part of it. Everything started turning into a gigantic mess. The “mission accomplished” was pretty quick, right? But, yeah. Anyway. I should probably get going.

Customer 5
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

I identify as Mexican, and I think I have a strong connection to certain parts of Mexico. Mazatlan particularly. I like trying different foods, so any people who can introduce a food that I don’t know. That’s why we’re here!

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

Well for me, I’ve tried shawarma with my friend, and I really liked it. I like trying different foods but I’m not adventurous, so I need to go with someone who knows so I know what to order. I work in El Cajon but I don’t live in El Cajon, and I feel like El Cajon is the best melting pot as far as food goes, and if I’m here, there’s so much better food. And food is a way to try to get to know another culture. I feel like that’s an inviting way.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Yeah I was born and raised here so it’s home for me. It’s memories that make a home. I used to work here and then I left and I came back. So El Cajon in general, I’m like oh, I remember going down this street. It brings back memories and makes me kinda nostalgic. And then, going back to people that you know. I’ve been here my whole life, and I have memories in all parts of the county except for north county. You know, I have a lot of memories of the different parts, and then as I meet new people, I create new memories that I then kinda gathered.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

Well for me, I immediately think of Mazatlan. I would go there often, almost yearly as a child. And then I remember when I was a senior in high school, leaving, and thinking, "I’m probably not going to be coming back here that often." I remember leaving that place and friends that I’ve made over the years. And I have a lot of family over there too, but family stays. Like sometimes you almost have to keep up connections with other people in order to keep the connection. So I remember having to leave some people that it was really hard to, and I still think of them a lot actually. And I have kids now and I try to have them go often, and they both traveled there at least twice, but now, like, I don’t. Like my kids are five and eight and they haven’t been there in a couple years. So, I’m just scared that they’re not going to know that place. Like I do at least.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I remember being worried for my brother because he was the prime age to be able to go into the military. I remember being worried that there were gonna invoke the draft. I remember not being happy with the fact that we were at war. I kind of have a very negative opinion of military, and not military people, but generally what we’re doing, and I feel like sometimes, the United States--I’m American--but the United States like kinda imposes themselves on other countries and beliefs. I feel that I know people who have advanced in war, and I imagine the things they do to get that are not nice. And a lot of unnecessary death. That’s how I pictured it. I picture a very ugly thing.

Breaking Bread in Little Baghdad

Breaking Bread in Little Baghdad

Next story

Start in downtown San Diego and drive east. The further you go, the cheaper the rent. Elected officials get redder, poverty rates get higher, and refugee resettlement numbers get bigger. Billboards for gun expos line the freeway, and there’s a hole-in-the-wall falafel shop on every corner.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the fallout resulted in more than three million Iraqis being forced from their homes. Over 18,000 of them resettled in San Diego County. As rent goes up closer to the ocean, refugee resettlement agencies are placing new arrivals in areas further east like El Cajon, a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Baghdad.” Storefronts are full of Arabic script, markets are full of Arabic ingredients, and apartment complexes are full of Arabic conversation. Iraqi cuisine offerings are ample, ranging from $2 sandwich shops to higher-end, sit-down fare.

While East County is known for its Middle Eastern communities, it is also known for its conservative politics. California’s 50th district is represented by staunch conservative Duncan Hunter, who also happens to be an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. On a national level, Donald Trump’s policies have resulted in fewer refugees arriving in the country from Muslim majority countries, including Iraq. At the close of the 2018 fiscal year, San Diego’s annual incoming Iraqi refugee count came to exactly 12, compared to thousands in past years.

In the context of the local and national political climate, social tensions can run high among the various communities of El Cajon. Here, the Iraqi food scene offers an opportunity for cultural exchange. As one Iraqi resident explains, eating at East County restaurants helps people learn about another culture’s “mentality, how they live, how they help people, how they eat food.”

Al Azayem sits in the heart of Little Baghdad on Main Street, sharing a dusty parking lot with an optical shop, a barber, and a tailor. A more casual, diner-style Iraqi eatery, Al Azayem features a wide menu, a high turnover, and freshly-made offerings that draw hungry Iraqi and non-Iraqi customers alike. Customers pay at the counter and take-out orders abound--but those who dine in are treated to Iraqi hospitality, as restaurant staff eagerly run around providing bread, soup, and salad free of charge. A combo intended for three people includes six juicy, spicy chicken and beef kabobs plus a pound of chicken and beef shawarma on the side. American flags and “I Voted” stickers adorn the register, while Arabic soccer commentary blares from a TV.

Eight years ago, US forces left Iraq in accordance with the US-Iraqi agreement to withdraw. Five years ago, they returned to combat ISIS. While stability, security, and peace have yet to return to Iraq, those displaced by the conflict continue to build their lives in new homes. Mazin Majeed, the owner of Al Azayem, arrived from Iraq as a refugee in 2009 and opened the restaurant in 2012. He says that the flavors and freshness of his food are as authentic as possible, but it’s still not the same as eating it in Iraq. “You love it over there, but what do you do?” he says. “Do I miss Iraq? No. I miss the Iraq from before, yes. But not Iraq now.”

Seven thousand miles away from the battlefield, Majeed serves his favorite, beloved dishes to Iraqis and Americans alike. His diverse clientele shares polished black tables and sugar shakers, tearing chunks of fresh saj bread to dip into soup. Their experiences of the US-Iraq War are drastically different, but they share a craving for Iraqi food.

Lunchtime diners at Al Azayem--teenagers, coworkers, families, and lone diners-- answer the same five questions about home, belonging, food, war, and goodbyes. They talk of home in El Cajon, Iraq, Mexico, Lebanon, Dubai, and across the United States. Their stories paint pictures of shawarma, George Bush, grandmothers, B-52 bombers, losing dignity, and life as a marine. Their perspectives resist any universal truths, except for one thing: an appreciation for good food, cheap prices, and great customer service.

Customer 1
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

We are all human beings. The group that is most important for me is human beings.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

I eat here almost everyday, and I grab some food for my non-Iraqi friends. They like it so much. I feel Iraqi food is more healthy. Everything we use, we just cook it together--vegetables and other things--and there we go. It’s fresh.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Yes, sure. Because here, I feel safe, and I feel happy. I'm part of a leadership academy, and I’m volunteering and advocating for many things over here. Home is when you feel you are existing in this world: when people are asking about you, people are taking care of you, you are important for them, and you are real.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

The most important thing that I left? My kids. In Iraq. They’re still there with my ex-husband. This is the most painful thing. I’m trying to work on this, and make myself ok. And they are twins, baby boys, still babies. In February 2019, they will be three years.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

Well it’s a big error, that war. Because when it happened, it was about political things--which are not real things. But the people who paid for it are the innocent people who died. I was in the middle of everything. We never left our houses, just stayed inside for our safety. We would hear bombing. We heard airplanes. We heard all different sounds. I can still remember the sound of the B-52, F-18, F-16…We stayed inside and listened. For years. And after that, we said, "Ok, the war is ended," and started doing our activities. But then other things came up, Sunni and Shiite problems. People started killing each other, and then ISIS came over, and then we had a lot of problems in Iraq…A lot of problems. Now, every time when we pass over a problem, something else will come up. My country never became stable after the war.

Customer 2
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

Sports people. American football. I was born in Iraq, but then I came when I was 5. / I came when I was 10.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

We were trying to get Subway, but he forgot his money. / So we came to my dad because he works right around the corner. I got some money from my dad and we came here. / And we came here because it tastes good. / It’s our food, because we’re Middle Eastern. We’re used to it. / When we eat it for the first time in a long time, we finally feel full.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Kind of, because everything we know is around here. We’ve been here for a while. / I feel home when I feel comfortable and I’m used to stuff.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

My grandma and grandpa, we had to leave them behind when we came here. But then six years later they came too, so now we’re together again. / For my situation, I was in Iraq with all my family there. But then there was an explosion outside my house, in my front yard. So then my dad thought it was really unsafe, and we moved to Lebanon. We stayed there for two years, and then we came here. It’s been five, six years? I had to leave my whole family behind and we’re still not connected.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I don’t remember anything about that. We don’t know anything. My mom told me I was born during the war, in 2003. That’s all I heard about the war. She didn’t tell me about what it was like to give birth during the war. They don’t like talking about it. / We’re not interested in that stuff. / Yeah / We don’t really ask, but they discuss it among themselves. Sometimes they refer to it, and they'll say, "If you were in Iraq you would have been getting an ass whooping."

Customer 3
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

Well, we’re Iraqis. We’re from Iraq. We’re just regular locals.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

This particular restaurant, it tastes really good. It’s really similar to the food from when I grew up. The cook’s really good, you can smell. My mom said you’re my guest, you want to eat something?

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

No, no. This doesn't feel like home. My mom says it’s safe, but it doesn’t feel the same. She says home is having a reliable life, a stable life. We’re not stable and happy because we’ve been through a lot. She says we feel like we got humiliated by some people in this country. They don’t treat us right because they think we are not from here. When we were in Iraq, nobody can tell us, “This is not your country, go home.” This country . . . I love it, it’s a beautiful country. But you got a bunch of people who tell you to go home. So that . . . that hurts. My mom says food doesn’t make me feel happy, or like I'm home. She says, I could survive by eating bread and onions and be happy. With my country, I have my dignity, and people honor and respect me.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

So my mom said, a lot of countries, they kind of came and got into Iraq's business, and they ruined the country. They did not know who was who. Before, it was a beautiful country. It was stable. Safe. So it was not easy at all to make the decision to leave.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

My brother, the Iraqi militia shot him in the foot. They kidnapped my little brother. They chased my other brother and they shot him three, four times, but he survived. They shot me. And they kidnapped my dad, tortured him to death. It was during the time the US was there. It wasn’t secure. Nobody cared. And now here, my mom wears a hijab. People don’t even know our story. All they know is that they don’t like you. "Get out of here!" They forget that all the other Americans are immigrants, except the natives. America is strong because we’re combined. A lot of people don’t understand this. They judge what they see. But they don’t realize I worked with the US for many years. I saved so many marines in my life. Thousands of troops. I met President Bush--he’s the one that brought me here. He gave me the presidential coin and said, "I want this guy to be in the US in the next year." What can we do? We try to survive.

Customer 4
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

My family and friends. It’s hard to feel an alliance with the US, right now, for me. I guess the world? And San Diego? Also, I cannot be friends with people who have an interest in low quality food. Honestly. Like, it has to be good food. Like, you know, I cook a lot, and so that’s important to me because one of the things that I derive pleasure from is being able to cook a nice meal for friends and having them have the context to appreciate it. And if someone is just like, going to Denny’s or something, it’s just like . . . I know I can’t trust your opinion on food, and what else can’t I trust your opinion on?

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

It’s delicious, and I live in San Diego, so I was out hiking, and pretty much any time I go east of here out hiking, I make a point to stop at this restaurant on my way back. It’s just, to me, El Cajon, I think of Iraqi food. The spice blends, you get all the different combinations. With Middle Eastern food specifically, it was the first time I knew that there was cinnamon in the meat that I was eating, and it shocked me, right? Like, wait, what? I can do that? Because to me I’d only ever associated cinnamon with sweets and things like that. After I’ve hiked, I’m generally in a good mood, because I’m feeling kind of free and everything. It doesn’t have to be a celebration, but it’s . . . I don’t know, I mean, to have food curiosity is kind of the same as having intellectual curiosity. Or it is intellectual curiosity. It’s the ability to be surprised. If I’m going to an American restaurant, or only ever going to Italian restaurants, or whatever it happens to be--it’s very difficult to surprise you. I mean they could, but a very easy way to be surprised is just to go to other culture’s cuisines.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

It does not. I mean, I’ve got a daughter now, so I have her and my wife, and we have a small but close group of friends…so it feels the most home since anywhere in a long time. Feeling like home is the food for me. Having access to good food, but also the ingredients. Food plays a part, but it’s probably more the people.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

So I lived in Brazil for about three years, and I love the place. But unfortunately I had to leave there. I mean it wasn’t devastating, it was time to move on, but, yeah I don’t know. I was in the northeast in a city called El Salvador, and it’s just a really rich city culturally, and it has a very strong music environment. It’s got a really interesting cuisine, there were really strong flavors . . . It wasn’t my home country, so there’s different things involved with that, you know. I was always seen as an outsider there. There was no way I could not be. Of that specific city at least 90% of that city has at least mixed African blood. I’m much taller than the people there, lighter skinned than the people there, so I was always seen as an outsider. The Brazilians were incredibly nice to me and everything else, so that wasn’t an issue, but it’s just, there’s cultural things you may not understand, and whatever else. And then, you know, I was leaving a place with crystal clear waters, fantastic beaches. And the second time I was leaving, I was leaving not to come to San Diego, but Kentucky, and I’d never been there before. So it was just like, leaving here, to go to Kentucky. My brother lived there at the time so it was ok, but it was a shock to me. And not only that, it’s just having that different perspective. I'm coming back and I’m looking at things with a critical eye in the United States. And while I was in Brazil, I’d heard people saying there's almost more of a culture shock going back to your own country because you weren’t expecting it. Right? You’re expecting to be able to just slop back in and not having anything. But so I come back, and yeah, it’s a shock to the system.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I was in the Marine Corps prior to the war. I got out on August 30, 2001. I had been on a deployment, and we were in Bahrain when the USS Cole got bombed so we had to go over there to help recover the ship. So I’m coming back as the ramp-up was happening. You had all the rhetoric of Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and Bush, talking about the war and leading up to it. And I just remember thinking . . . It felt like the lies that were told to us when I was in the military. It was the same formula for the lies that we got told for why we were doing something, when the reason--there was no reason, it was just--whatever, you know, hate. To me it seems like you don’t truly have legitimate reasons to go to Iraq, so you’re creating them. And the fact that you’re lying to me about certain things, it just doesn’t seem right. It’s difficult, because I know people who left Iraq prior to the war because Saddam Hussein started persecuting minority groups and things like that. It was obviously not a good situation, but we made it even less stable by going there. So the specifics of the war itself? Honestly I don’t remember much about it, which is an odd thing. I did not want to be part of it. Everything started turning into a gigantic mess. The “mission accomplished” was pretty quick, right? But, yeah. Anyway. I should probably get going.

Customer 5
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

I identify as Mexican, and I think I have a strong connection to certain parts of Mexico. Mazatlan particularly. I like trying different foods, so any people who can introduce a food that I don’t know. That’s why we’re here!

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

Well for me, I’ve tried shawarma with my friend, and I really liked it. I like trying different foods but I’m not adventurous, so I need to go with someone who knows so I know what to order. I work in El Cajon but I don’t live in El Cajon, and I feel like El Cajon is the best melting pot as far as food goes, and if I’m here, there’s so much better food. And food is a way to try to get to know another culture. I feel like that’s an inviting way.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Yeah I was born and raised here so it’s home for me. It’s memories that make a home. I used to work here and then I left and I came back. So El Cajon in general, I’m like oh, I remember going down this street. It brings back memories and makes me kinda nostalgic. And then, going back to people that you know. I’ve been here my whole life, and I have memories in all parts of the county except for north county. You know, I have a lot of memories of the different parts, and then as I meet new people, I create new memories that I then kinda gathered.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

Well for me, I immediately think of Mazatlan. I would go there often, almost yearly as a child. And then I remember when I was a senior in high school, leaving, and thinking, "I’m probably not going to be coming back here that often." I remember leaving that place and friends that I’ve made over the years. And I have a lot of family over there too, but family stays. Like sometimes you almost have to keep up connections with other people in order to keep the connection. So I remember having to leave some people that it was really hard to, and I still think of them a lot actually. And I have kids now and I try to have them go often, and they both traveled there at least twice, but now, like, I don’t. Like my kids are five and eight and they haven’t been there in a couple years. So, I’m just scared that they’re not going to know that place. Like I do at least.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I remember being worried for my brother because he was the prime age to be able to go into the military. I remember being worried that there were gonna invoke the draft. I remember not being happy with the fact that we were at war. I kind of have a very negative opinion of military, and not military people, but generally what we’re doing, and I feel like sometimes, the United States--I’m American--but the United States like kinda imposes themselves on other countries and beliefs. I feel that I know people who have advanced in war, and I imagine the things they do to get that are not nice. And a lot of unnecessary death. That’s how I pictured it. I picture a very ugly thing.

Breaking Bread in Little Baghdad

Breaking Bread in Little Baghdad

Next story

Start in downtown San Diego and drive east. The further you go, the cheaper the rent. Elected officials get redder, poverty rates get higher, and refugee resettlement numbers get bigger. Billboards for gun expos line the freeway, and there’s a hole-in-the-wall falafel shop on every corner.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the fallout resulted in more than three million Iraqis being forced from their homes. Over 18,000 of them resettled in San Diego County. As rent goes up closer to the ocean, refugee resettlement agencies are placing new arrivals in areas further east like El Cajon, a neighborhood nicknamed “Little Baghdad.” Storefronts are full of Arabic script, markets are full of Arabic ingredients, and apartment complexes are full of Arabic conversation. Iraqi cuisine offerings are ample, ranging from $2 sandwich shops to higher-end, sit-down fare.

While East County is known for its Middle Eastern communities, it is also known for its conservative politics. California’s 50th district is represented by staunch conservative Duncan Hunter, who also happens to be an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. On a national level, Donald Trump’s policies have resulted in fewer refugees arriving in the country from Muslim majority countries, including Iraq. At the close of the 2018 fiscal year, San Diego’s annual incoming Iraqi refugee count came to exactly 12, compared to thousands in past years.

In the context of the local and national political climate, social tensions can run high among the various communities of El Cajon. Here, the Iraqi food scene offers an opportunity for cultural exchange. As one Iraqi resident explains, eating at East County restaurants helps people learn about another culture’s “mentality, how they live, how they help people, how they eat food.”

Al Azayem sits in the heart of Little Baghdad on Main Street, sharing a dusty parking lot with an optical shop, a barber, and a tailor. A more casual, diner-style Iraqi eatery, Al Azayem features a wide menu, a high turnover, and freshly-made offerings that draw hungry Iraqi and non-Iraqi customers alike. Customers pay at the counter and take-out orders abound--but those who dine in are treated to Iraqi hospitality, as restaurant staff eagerly run around providing bread, soup, and salad free of charge. A combo intended for three people includes six juicy, spicy chicken and beef kabobs plus a pound of chicken and beef shawarma on the side. American flags and “I Voted” stickers adorn the register, while Arabic soccer commentary blares from a TV.

Eight years ago, US forces left Iraq in accordance with the US-Iraqi agreement to withdraw. Five years ago, they returned to combat ISIS. While stability, security, and peace have yet to return to Iraq, those displaced by the conflict continue to build their lives in new homes. Mazin Majeed, the owner of Al Azayem, arrived from Iraq as a refugee in 2009 and opened the restaurant in 2012. He says that the flavors and freshness of his food are as authentic as possible, but it’s still not the same as eating it in Iraq. “You love it over there, but what do you do?” he says. “Do I miss Iraq? No. I miss the Iraq from before, yes. But not Iraq now.”

Seven thousand miles away from the battlefield, Majeed serves his favorite, beloved dishes to Iraqis and Americans alike. His diverse clientele shares polished black tables and sugar shakers, tearing chunks of fresh saj bread to dip into soup. Their experiences of the US-Iraq War are drastically different, but they share a craving for Iraqi food.

Lunchtime diners at Al Azayem--teenagers, coworkers, families, and lone diners-- answer the same five questions about home, belonging, food, war, and goodbyes. They talk of home in El Cajon, Iraq, Mexico, Lebanon, Dubai, and across the United States. Their stories paint pictures of shawarma, George Bush, grandmothers, B-52 bombers, losing dignity, and life as a marine. Their perspectives resist any universal truths, except for one thing: an appreciation for good food, cheap prices, and great customer service.

Customer 1
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

We are all human beings. The group that is most important for me is human beings.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

I eat here almost everyday, and I grab some food for my non-Iraqi friends. They like it so much. I feel Iraqi food is more healthy. Everything we use, we just cook it together--vegetables and other things--and there we go. It’s fresh.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Yes, sure. Because here, I feel safe, and I feel happy. I'm part of a leadership academy, and I’m volunteering and advocating for many things over here. Home is when you feel you are existing in this world: when people are asking about you, people are taking care of you, you are important for them, and you are real.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

The most important thing that I left? My kids. In Iraq. They’re still there with my ex-husband. This is the most painful thing. I’m trying to work on this, and make myself ok. And they are twins, baby boys, still babies. In February 2019, they will be three years.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

Well it’s a big error, that war. Because when it happened, it was about political things--which are not real things. But the people who paid for it are the innocent people who died. I was in the middle of everything. We never left our houses, just stayed inside for our safety. We would hear bombing. We heard airplanes. We heard all different sounds. I can still remember the sound of the B-52, F-18, F-16…We stayed inside and listened. For years. And after that, we said, "Ok, the war is ended," and started doing our activities. But then other things came up, Sunni and Shiite problems. People started killing each other, and then ISIS came over, and then we had a lot of problems in Iraq…A lot of problems. Now, every time when we pass over a problem, something else will come up. My country never became stable after the war.

Customer 2
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

Sports people. American football. I was born in Iraq, but then I came when I was 5. / I came when I was 10.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

We were trying to get Subway, but he forgot his money. / So we came to my dad because he works right around the corner. I got some money from my dad and we came here. / And we came here because it tastes good. / It’s our food, because we’re Middle Eastern. We’re used to it. / When we eat it for the first time in a long time, we finally feel full.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Kind of, because everything we know is around here. We’ve been here for a while. / I feel home when I feel comfortable and I’m used to stuff.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

My grandma and grandpa, we had to leave them behind when we came here. But then six years later they came too, so now we’re together again. / For my situation, I was in Iraq with all my family there. But then there was an explosion outside my house, in my front yard. So then my dad thought it was really unsafe, and we moved to Lebanon. We stayed there for two years, and then we came here. It’s been five, six years? I had to leave my whole family behind and we’re still not connected.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I don’t remember anything about that. We don’t know anything. My mom told me I was born during the war, in 2003. That’s all I heard about the war. She didn’t tell me about what it was like to give birth during the war. They don’t like talking about it. / We’re not interested in that stuff. / Yeah / We don’t really ask, but they discuss it among themselves. Sometimes they refer to it, and they'll say, "If you were in Iraq you would have been getting an ass whooping."

Customer 3
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

Well, we’re Iraqis. We’re from Iraq. We’re just regular locals.

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

This particular restaurant, it tastes really good. It’s really similar to the food from when I grew up. The cook’s really good, you can smell. My mom said you’re my guest, you want to eat something?

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

No, no. This doesn't feel like home. My mom says it’s safe, but it doesn’t feel the same. She says home is having a reliable life, a stable life. We’re not stable and happy because we’ve been through a lot. She says we feel like we got humiliated by some people in this country. They don’t treat us right because they think we are not from here. When we were in Iraq, nobody can tell us, “This is not your country, go home.” This country . . . I love it, it’s a beautiful country. But you got a bunch of people who tell you to go home. So that . . . that hurts. My mom says food doesn’t make me feel happy, or like I'm home. She says, I could survive by eating bread and onions and be happy. With my country, I have my dignity, and people honor and respect me.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

So my mom said, a lot of countries, they kind of came and got into Iraq's business, and they ruined the country. They did not know who was who. Before, it was a beautiful country. It was stable. Safe. So it was not easy at all to make the decision to leave.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

My brother, the Iraqi militia shot him in the foot. They kidnapped my little brother. They chased my other brother and they shot him three, four times, but he survived. They shot me. And they kidnapped my dad, tortured him to death. It was during the time the US was there. It wasn’t secure. Nobody cared. And now here, my mom wears a hijab. People don’t even know our story. All they know is that they don’t like you. "Get out of here!" They forget that all the other Americans are immigrants, except the natives. America is strong because we’re combined. A lot of people don’t understand this. They judge what they see. But they don’t realize I worked with the US for many years. I saved so many marines in my life. Thousands of troops. I met President Bush--he’s the one that brought me here. He gave me the presidential coin and said, "I want this guy to be in the US in the next year." What can we do? We try to survive.

Customer 4
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

My family and friends. It’s hard to feel an alliance with the US, right now, for me. I guess the world? And San Diego? Also, I cannot be friends with people who have an interest in low quality food. Honestly. Like, it has to be good food. Like, you know, I cook a lot, and so that’s important to me because one of the things that I derive pleasure from is being able to cook a nice meal for friends and having them have the context to appreciate it. And if someone is just like, going to Denny’s or something, it’s just like . . . I know I can’t trust your opinion on food, and what else can’t I trust your opinion on?

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

It’s delicious, and I live in San Diego, so I was out hiking, and pretty much any time I go east of here out hiking, I make a point to stop at this restaurant on my way back. It’s just, to me, El Cajon, I think of Iraqi food. The spice blends, you get all the different combinations. With Middle Eastern food specifically, it was the first time I knew that there was cinnamon in the meat that I was eating, and it shocked me, right? Like, wait, what? I can do that? Because to me I’d only ever associated cinnamon with sweets and things like that. After I’ve hiked, I’m generally in a good mood, because I’m feeling kind of free and everything. It doesn’t have to be a celebration, but it’s . . . I don’t know, I mean, to have food curiosity is kind of the same as having intellectual curiosity. Or it is intellectual curiosity. It’s the ability to be surprised. If I’m going to an American restaurant, or only ever going to Italian restaurants, or whatever it happens to be--it’s very difficult to surprise you. I mean they could, but a very easy way to be surprised is just to go to other culture’s cuisines.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

It does not. I mean, I’ve got a daughter now, so I have her and my wife, and we have a small but close group of friends…so it feels the most home since anywhere in a long time. Feeling like home is the food for me. Having access to good food, but also the ingredients. Food plays a part, but it’s probably more the people.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

So I lived in Brazil for about three years, and I love the place. But unfortunately I had to leave there. I mean it wasn’t devastating, it was time to move on, but, yeah I don’t know. I was in the northeast in a city called El Salvador, and it’s just a really rich city culturally, and it has a very strong music environment. It’s got a really interesting cuisine, there were really strong flavors . . . It wasn’t my home country, so there’s different things involved with that, you know. I was always seen as an outsider there. There was no way I could not be. Of that specific city at least 90% of that city has at least mixed African blood. I’m much taller than the people there, lighter skinned than the people there, so I was always seen as an outsider. The Brazilians were incredibly nice to me and everything else, so that wasn’t an issue, but it’s just, there’s cultural things you may not understand, and whatever else. And then, you know, I was leaving a place with crystal clear waters, fantastic beaches. And the second time I was leaving, I was leaving not to come to San Diego, but Kentucky, and I’d never been there before. So it was just like, leaving here, to go to Kentucky. My brother lived there at the time so it was ok, but it was a shock to me. And not only that, it’s just having that different perspective. I'm coming back and I’m looking at things with a critical eye in the United States. And while I was in Brazil, I’d heard people saying there's almost more of a culture shock going back to your own country because you weren’t expecting it. Right? You’re expecting to be able to just slop back in and not having anything. But so I come back, and yeah, it’s a shock to the system.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I was in the Marine Corps prior to the war. I got out on August 30, 2001. I had been on a deployment, and we were in Bahrain when the USS Cole got bombed so we had to go over there to help recover the ship. So I’m coming back as the ramp-up was happening. You had all the rhetoric of Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and Bush, talking about the war and leading up to it. And I just remember thinking . . . It felt like the lies that were told to us when I was in the military. It was the same formula for the lies that we got told for why we were doing something, when the reason--there was no reason, it was just--whatever, you know, hate. To me it seems like you don’t truly have legitimate reasons to go to Iraq, so you’re creating them. And the fact that you’re lying to me about certain things, it just doesn’t seem right. It’s difficult, because I know people who left Iraq prior to the war because Saddam Hussein started persecuting minority groups and things like that. It was obviously not a good situation, but we made it even less stable by going there. So the specifics of the war itself? Honestly I don’t remember much about it, which is an odd thing. I did not want to be part of it. Everything started turning into a gigantic mess. The “mission accomplished” was pretty quick, right? But, yeah. Anyway. I should probably get going.

Customer 5
Who are your people?/What groups are you a part of that are important to you?

I identify as Mexican, and I think I have a strong connection to certain parts of Mexico. Mazatlan particularly. I like trying different foods, so any people who can introduce a food that I don’t know. That’s why we’re here!

Why did you eat here today?/What draws you about Iraqi food?

Well for me, I’ve tried shawarma with my friend, and I really liked it. I like trying different foods but I’m not adventurous, so I need to go with someone who knows so I know what to order. I work in El Cajon but I don’t live in El Cajon, and I feel like El Cajon is the best melting pot as far as food goes, and if I’m here, there’s so much better food. And food is a way to try to get to know another culture. I feel like that’s an inviting way.

Does San Diego feel like home to you? What makes home feel like home?/How do you know when you are home?

Yeah I was born and raised here so it’s home for me. It’s memories that make a home. I used to work here and then I left and I came back. So El Cajon in general, I’m like oh, I remember going down this street. It brings back memories and makes me kinda nostalgic. And then, going back to people that you know. I’ve been here my whole life, and I have memories in all parts of the county except for north county. You know, I have a lot of memories of the different parts, and then as I meet new people, I create new memories that I then kinda gathered.

Can you tell me about a time that you loved a person/place/thing, and you had to leave it behind?

Well for me, I immediately think of Mazatlan. I would go there often, almost yearly as a child. And then I remember when I was a senior in high school, leaving, and thinking, "I’m probably not going to be coming back here that often." I remember leaving that place and friends that I’ve made over the years. And I have a lot of family over there too, but family stays. Like sometimes you almost have to keep up connections with other people in order to keep the connection. So I remember having to leave some people that it was really hard to, and I still think of them a lot actually. And I have kids now and I try to have them go often, and they both traveled there at least twice, but now, like, I don’t. Like my kids are five and eight and they haven’t been there in a couple years. So, I’m just scared that they’re not going to know that place. Like I do at least.

Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, what was your experience of the US-Iraq War?

I remember being worried for my brother because he was the prime age to be able to go into the military. I remember being worried that there were gonna invoke the draft. I remember not being happy with the fact that we were at war. I kind of have a very negative opinion of military, and not military people, but generally what we’re doing, and I feel like sometimes, the United States--I’m American--but the United States like kinda imposes themselves on other countries and beliefs. I feel that I know people who have advanced in war, and I imagine the things they do to get that are not nice. And a lot of unnecessary death. That’s how I pictured it. I picture a very ugly thing.

The Death of the Restaurant Car

The Death of the Restaurant Car

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A plate of feta-filled “cigarette” pastries. Watery instant coffee with an off-market Coffee-Mate in a Turkish State Railways (TCDD) logoed cup. Glasses of flat beer. The sinister stench of frying oil, trapped in the deep fryer a few meters away, begging to be disposed of. Based on these dining experiences alone, I shouldn’t be missing the restaurant cars of the long distance TCDD trains of my youth; yet I do, anytime I take a train anywhere. A lot.

Over the last 25 years—between my first memories of the restaurant car and my last, a disappointing encounter to say the least—the politics and culture of Turkey, the country I was born in, changed drastically. As a child, I grew up in a country that aspired to Western values and made an active effort to become a part of the European Union, a now forlorn ideal. As my tweens turned into 20s—and later, 30s—the elected government grew increasingly more authoritarian, using both soft power and coercion to achieve the conservative and quiet society they envisioned. Surprisingly, the fate of restaurant cars was the last battleground between the secularist old guard and the conservative new guard over the right to serve alcohol in public spaces.

Historically, the state-owned railways and the institutional culture tied to it are a soft spot for Turkey’s secular old guard. At the tail end of the Ottoman era, the railways were owned and operated by foreign companies; among them was Wagons-Lits, the French railway company that came up with the concept of luxurious sleeper train travel for its famous Orient Express. Yearning to be fully independent and within only a few years of its commencement, the young and penniless Turkish Republic started buying the rights to operate the railroad tracks (while keeping Lits on retainer as a vendor). As early as 1926, the Republic also began running a high-end restaurant on the sleeper trains between Istanbul, the empire’s old capital, and Ankara, the modern state’s new capital.

“Back then, train travel represented a different kind of prestige,” says Nevres Ruhan Çelebi, the founding director of the TCDD Istanbul Railway Museum located at the pink and pompous Sirkeci Train Station, a building dating back to 1890. A third-generation TCDD employee and a former director of the state-owned company’s food and beverage department, Çelebi launched the museum singlehandedly in 2005, combining the historical artefacts she had been collecting over the years. She salvaged furniture, documents, and equipment — going back to the Ottoman era — from the trash after the first wave of railway privatization took place in 2004. “In the early days of the republic, bureaucrats used the train between Istanbul and Ankara, and it was considered the best way to travel,” she explains. “I remember this from going to the Ankara Railway Station as a child with my father, who also worked for TCDD. Two hours before the departure, the train staff, dressed to the nines, would line up in front of the train doors and greet everyone. They were like flight attendants. At the restaurant car, the waiters wore white gloves.”

On the menu were items from Turkish and French cuisines, state-owned Tekel’s red and white wines made from grapes in Turkey’s southeast, and rakı, an ouzo and pastis-like high-proof anise drink that is traditionally served with mezes, a trove of olive oil-driven Middleterranean appetizers. The silver cutlery and the branded, fine porcelain ware that were used for service are still displayed at the museum in the French vitrines lining the walls. Though Lits transferred all of their equipment to TCDD in 1972 and left the country, the dining culture TCDD inherited from the company stuck around.

“About 35 years ago, I used to go to Ankara by train a lot, and TCDD had the most elegant rakı service I’ve ever seen,” says Haldun Dostoğlu, the 68-year-old curator and the co-founder of Istanbul-based Galeri Nev, with an undeniable fondness. “There was a certain stretch of years when we really looked forward to dining on the train. The waiter would appear holding a tray of rakı glasses, a glass measuring cup, a bottle of water, and an ice bucket. Resisting the rocking of the train over the rails, with the utmost grace, he first poured the rakı in the measuring cup, then transferred it into the glass, and finished by adding the water and ice on top. Not a single drop spilled on his tray as he went on with the process.”

Rakı is rarely drunk without appetizers, so he and his friends nibbled on feta cheese, slices of melon, and roasted eggplant salad as the nearly eight-hour journey began. “I really miss talking to friends while dining at the restaurant car, and eventually falling asleep in the sleeper car to the sound of the train clanking over the rails,” he reminiscences.

By 1995, the first year I remember seeing the restaurant car, the white gloves and the silver cutlery were long gone. But it was still OK to drink and smoke in the restaurant car. Restless as children get, my mom, my toddler brother and I took walks through cars, up until we hit the smoke-filled restaurant car as the train rattled through the snowy landscape from Istanbul, where we lived, to our hometown, Eskişehir. Behind the glass door, with its white tablecloths, tiny porcelain vases carrying fresh carnations, and large groups of friends chatting, the restaurant car looked like a party on wheels. Men and women drank Efes, the local beer, as they snacked on roasted, salty peanuts; or, they munched on a plate of index finger-shaped köfte, Turkish meatballs, served with a side of buttery white rice, a roasted pepper, and half of a tomato. Later, as a sulky teenager and then college student searching for identity, I sat in the restaurant car countless times, slurping beers trying to impress a guy I liked, and waiting for that magical moment where the rails are so close to the edge of the Marmara Sea that it feels like the train is literally moving on the surface of the sea. Although at this point—around the mid 2000s—the food was offensively bad, this stretch of the trip was still best enjoyed from the restaurant car.

I asked Ali Yavuz, a friend I often ran into in the restaurant car during my early 20s, why people like us insisted on sitting there. “Oh, just to be together,” he answered. “To be perfectly honest, the restaurant car was like a bad meyhane at best. The food wasn’t good. Back when people were allowed to smoke in the train, a heavy fog hung in the air. But we liked hanging out there, and we liked being able to have a beer whenever we felt like it.”

Together, Ali and I recounted the names of the trains and what they looked like, which were  mysteriously unsearchable on the Internet: the navy and red “Başkent” (“the capital” in Turkish), which was a relatively new train; “Fatih” (“the conqueror”), which left Ankara around late night and arrived at the beautiful Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul with the first lights of the morning; the eggshell blue “Anadolu” (“Anatolia”) which was a train from the ’60s and definitely smelt and looked like it with its formica covered, moth-eaten French lace-curtained dining car. We then counted the menu items we could remember: the ever-present köfte, cigarette pastries (fried phyllo dough filled with feta cheese—frankly, they should be called cigar pastries), french fries, and mezes like the milky, dried mint-speckled haydari and the bright red acılı ezme. The elusive fried liver was always on the menu but, for reasons unknown, rarely available.   

The AK Party, who first came to rule in 2003 with promises of freedom and peace, began actively seeking votes from Turkey’s liberals and the country’s tight-knit LGBTQ+ community. However, since 2011, it grew more authoritarian and less tolerant of outwardly-secular lifestyles. The party also became increasingly obsessed with both new transportation projects, and where and when alcoholic beverages should be consumed. New roads were built alongside brand new, high-speed train tracks cutting the travel time between Istanbul and Ankara to half. Meanwhile, a series of bans on alcohol were implemented, starting with the neighborhood bars. In 2011, serving alcohol on the outside tables of the restaurants and bars were banned in Istanbul, followed by another law banning the sale of alcohol after 10 PM in 2013. The same law marked the end of advertisements for liquor, spirits, wine and beer brands, and sponsorship opportunities. In 2014, five years after high speed trains first started operating, alcohol was “retracted” from all railway lines, citing an overall “lack of consumer interest.” These days, the only food options on the train are pre-packaged snacks and microwaveable airplane food served on a plastic tray, wrapped in the cheapest single-use plastic. Meanwhile, on the ground, wine, beer, liquor, and spirits are taxed at over 69 percent, and the prices for alcoholic drinks have grown exorbitantly high over the last five years.

Many people in Turkey, including myself, can’t help but feel targeted by AK Party’s “ideological” lifestyle-related decisions. The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey. The death of the restaurant car is also a missing link from an ongoing narrative of the republic. From construction and architecture, to landscape planning and dictating, where and how exactly the public can and should socialize, this hegemony’s cultural policy is based on taking away, not unlike a vacuum cleaner. At the end of the day, what we are left with is the discontinuity and emptiness.

The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey.

In 2017, when I last walked into the restaurant car of the Eskişehir-İzmir train in the wee hours in hopes of a cup of coffee, I immediately wished I hadn’t. In the 7 AM light, the curtains, tablecloths, and porcelain ware were all gone. I caught a glimpse of the all-steel kitchen, the equipment still there but sterile like an operation room. I looked at the empty restaurant car with shame, as if it was left clothless against its will, a scene of obscenity or something’s deathbed.

I asked for a coffee. The clerk, a young man wearing a tughra-imprinted ring, offered a paper cup with some hot water and a gold-tinted aluminium diffuser with a few holes poked on one end. It was Italian coffee and I had to stir it until the instant coffee dissolved, he explained, not looking into the eyes of a single woman travelling by herself. Instead, plastic-looking breakfast sandwiches wrapped in more plastic looked back at me. Did getting to a place faster always mean progress, especially if all that was left to look forward to were these shitty sandwiches? I still doubt it.

The Death of the Restaurant Car

The Death of the Restaurant Car

Next story

A plate of feta-filled “cigarette” pastries. Watery instant coffee with an off-market Coffee-Mate in a Turkish State Railways (TCDD) logoed cup. Glasses of flat beer. The sinister stench of frying oil, trapped in the deep fryer a few meters away, begging to be disposed of. Based on these dining experiences alone, I shouldn’t be missing the restaurant cars of the long distance TCDD trains of my youth; yet I do, anytime I take a train anywhere. A lot.

Over the last 25 years—between my first memories of the restaurant car and my last, a disappointing encounter to say the least—the politics and culture of Turkey, the country I was born in, changed drastically. As a child, I grew up in a country that aspired to Western values and made an active effort to become a part of the European Union, a now forlorn ideal. As my tweens turned into 20s—and later, 30s—the elected government grew increasingly more authoritarian, using both soft power and coercion to achieve the conservative and quiet society they envisioned. Surprisingly, the fate of restaurant cars was the last battleground between the secularist old guard and the conservative new guard over the right to serve alcohol in public spaces.

Historically, the state-owned railways and the institutional culture tied to it are a soft spot for Turkey’s secular old guard. At the tail end of the Ottoman era, the railways were owned and operated by foreign companies; among them was Wagons-Lits, the French railway company that came up with the concept of luxurious sleeper train travel for its famous Orient Express. Yearning to be fully independent and within only a few years of its commencement, the young and penniless Turkish Republic started buying the rights to operate the railroad tracks (while keeping Lits on retainer as a vendor). As early as 1926, the Republic also began running a high-end restaurant on the sleeper trains between Istanbul, the empire’s old capital, and Ankara, the modern state’s new capital.

“Back then, train travel represented a different kind of prestige,” says Nevres Ruhan Çelebi, the founding director of the TCDD Istanbul Railway Museum located at the pink and pompous Sirkeci Train Station, a building dating back to 1890. A third-generation TCDD employee and a former director of the state-owned company’s food and beverage department, Çelebi launched the museum singlehandedly in 2005, combining the historical artefacts she had been collecting over the years. She salvaged furniture, documents, and equipment — going back to the Ottoman era — from the trash after the first wave of railway privatization took place in 2004. “In the early days of the republic, bureaucrats used the train between Istanbul and Ankara, and it was considered the best way to travel,” she explains. “I remember this from going to the Ankara Railway Station as a child with my father, who also worked for TCDD. Two hours before the departure, the train staff, dressed to the nines, would line up in front of the train doors and greet everyone. They were like flight attendants. At the restaurant car, the waiters wore white gloves.”

On the menu were items from Turkish and French cuisines, state-owned Tekel’s red and white wines made from grapes in Turkey’s southeast, and rakı, an ouzo and pastis-like high-proof anise drink that is traditionally served with mezes, a trove of olive oil-driven Middleterranean appetizers. The silver cutlery and the branded, fine porcelain ware that were used for service are still displayed at the museum in the French vitrines lining the walls. Though Lits transferred all of their equipment to TCDD in 1972 and left the country, the dining culture TCDD inherited from the company stuck around.

“About 35 years ago, I used to go to Ankara by train a lot, and TCDD had the most elegant rakı service I’ve ever seen,” says Haldun Dostoğlu, the 68-year-old curator and the co-founder of Istanbul-based Galeri Nev, with an undeniable fondness. “There was a certain stretch of years when we really looked forward to dining on the train. The waiter would appear holding a tray of rakı glasses, a glass measuring cup, a bottle of water, and an ice bucket. Resisting the rocking of the train over the rails, with the utmost grace, he first poured the rakı in the measuring cup, then transferred it into the glass, and finished by adding the water and ice on top. Not a single drop spilled on his tray as he went on with the process.”

Rakı is rarely drunk without appetizers, so he and his friends nibbled on feta cheese, slices of melon, and roasted eggplant salad as the nearly eight-hour journey began. “I really miss talking to friends while dining at the restaurant car, and eventually falling asleep in the sleeper car to the sound of the train clanking over the rails,” he reminiscences.

By 1995, the first year I remember seeing the restaurant car, the white gloves and the silver cutlery were long gone. But it was still OK to drink and smoke in the restaurant car. Restless as children get, my mom, my toddler brother and I took walks through cars, up until we hit the smoke-filled restaurant car as the train rattled through the snowy landscape from Istanbul, where we lived, to our hometown, Eskişehir. Behind the glass door, with its white tablecloths, tiny porcelain vases carrying fresh carnations, and large groups of friends chatting, the restaurant car looked like a party on wheels. Men and women drank Efes, the local beer, as they snacked on roasted, salty peanuts; or, they munched on a plate of index finger-shaped köfte, Turkish meatballs, served with a side of buttery white rice, a roasted pepper, and half of a tomato. Later, as a sulky teenager and then college student searching for identity, I sat in the restaurant car countless times, slurping beers trying to impress a guy I liked, and waiting for that magical moment where the rails are so close to the edge of the Marmara Sea that it feels like the train is literally moving on the surface of the sea. Although at this point—around the mid 2000s—the food was offensively bad, this stretch of the trip was still best enjoyed from the restaurant car.

I asked Ali Yavuz, a friend I often ran into in the restaurant car during my early 20s, why people like us insisted on sitting there. “Oh, just to be together,” he answered. “To be perfectly honest, the restaurant car was like a bad meyhane at best. The food wasn’t good. Back when people were allowed to smoke in the train, a heavy fog hung in the air. But we liked hanging out there, and we liked being able to have a beer whenever we felt like it.”

Together, Ali and I recounted the names of the trains and what they looked like, which were  mysteriously unsearchable on the Internet: the navy and red “Başkent” (“the capital” in Turkish), which was a relatively new train; “Fatih” (“the conqueror”), which left Ankara around late night and arrived at the beautiful Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul with the first lights of the morning; the eggshell blue “Anadolu” (“Anatolia”) which was a train from the ’60s and definitely smelt and looked like it with its formica covered, moth-eaten French lace-curtained dining car. We then counted the menu items we could remember: the ever-present köfte, cigarette pastries (fried phyllo dough filled with feta cheese—frankly, they should be called cigar pastries), french fries, and mezes like the milky, dried mint-speckled haydari and the bright red acılı ezme. The elusive fried liver was always on the menu but, for reasons unknown, rarely available.   

The AK Party, who first came to rule in 2003 with promises of freedom and peace, began actively seeking votes from Turkey’s liberals and the country’s tight-knit LGBTQ+ community. However, since 2011, it grew more authoritarian and less tolerant of outwardly-secular lifestyles. The party also became increasingly obsessed with both new transportation projects, and where and when alcoholic beverages should be consumed. New roads were built alongside brand new, high-speed train tracks cutting the travel time between Istanbul and Ankara to half. Meanwhile, a series of bans on alcohol were implemented, starting with the neighborhood bars. In 2011, serving alcohol on the outside tables of the restaurants and bars were banned in Istanbul, followed by another law banning the sale of alcohol after 10 PM in 2013. The same law marked the end of advertisements for liquor, spirits, wine and beer brands, and sponsorship opportunities. In 2014, five years after high speed trains first started operating, alcohol was “retracted” from all railway lines, citing an overall “lack of consumer interest.” These days, the only food options on the train are pre-packaged snacks and microwaveable airplane food served on a plastic tray, wrapped in the cheapest single-use plastic. Meanwhile, on the ground, wine, beer, liquor, and spirits are taxed at over 69 percent, and the prices for alcoholic drinks have grown exorbitantly high over the last five years.

Many people in Turkey, including myself, can’t help but feel targeted by AK Party’s “ideological” lifestyle-related decisions. The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey. The death of the restaurant car is also a missing link from an ongoing narrative of the republic. From construction and architecture, to landscape planning and dictating, where and how exactly the public can and should socialize, this hegemony’s cultural policy is based on taking away, not unlike a vacuum cleaner. At the end of the day, what we are left with is the discontinuity and emptiness.

The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey.

In 2017, when I last walked into the restaurant car of the Eskişehir-İzmir train in the wee hours in hopes of a cup of coffee, I immediately wished I hadn’t. In the 7 AM light, the curtains, tablecloths, and porcelain ware were all gone. I caught a glimpse of the all-steel kitchen, the equipment still there but sterile like an operation room. I looked at the empty restaurant car with shame, as if it was left clothless against its will, a scene of obscenity or something’s deathbed.

I asked for a coffee. The clerk, a young man wearing a tughra-imprinted ring, offered a paper cup with some hot water and a gold-tinted aluminium diffuser with a few holes poked on one end. It was Italian coffee and I had to stir it until the instant coffee dissolved, he explained, not looking into the eyes of a single woman travelling by herself. Instead, plastic-looking breakfast sandwiches wrapped in more plastic looked back at me. Did getting to a place faster always mean progress, especially if all that was left to look forward to were these shitty sandwiches? I still doubt it.

The Death of the Restaurant Car

The Death of the Restaurant Car

Next story

A plate of feta-filled “cigarette” pastries. Watery instant coffee with an off-market Coffee-Mate in a Turkish State Railways (TCDD) logoed cup. Glasses of flat beer. The sinister stench of frying oil, trapped in the deep fryer a few meters away, begging to be disposed of. Based on these dining experiences alone, I shouldn’t be missing the restaurant cars of the long distance TCDD trains of my youth; yet I do, anytime I take a train anywhere. A lot.

Over the last 25 years—between my first memories of the restaurant car and my last, a disappointing encounter to say the least—the politics and culture of Turkey, the country I was born in, changed drastically. As a child, I grew up in a country that aspired to Western values and made an active effort to become a part of the European Union, a now forlorn ideal. As my tweens turned into 20s—and later, 30s—the elected government grew increasingly more authoritarian, using both soft power and coercion to achieve the conservative and quiet society they envisioned. Surprisingly, the fate of restaurant cars was the last battleground between the secularist old guard and the conservative new guard over the right to serve alcohol in public spaces.

Historically, the state-owned railways and the institutional culture tied to it are a soft spot for Turkey’s secular old guard. At the tail end of the Ottoman era, the railways were owned and operated by foreign companies; among them was Wagons-Lits, the French railway company that came up with the concept of luxurious sleeper train travel for its famous Orient Express. Yearning to be fully independent and within only a few years of its commencement, the young and penniless Turkish Republic started buying the rights to operate the railroad tracks (while keeping Lits on retainer as a vendor). As early as 1926, the Republic also began running a high-end restaurant on the sleeper trains between Istanbul, the empire’s old capital, and Ankara, the modern state’s new capital.

“Back then, train travel represented a different kind of prestige,” says Nevres Ruhan Çelebi, the founding director of the TCDD Istanbul Railway Museum located at the pink and pompous Sirkeci Train Station, a building dating back to 1890. A third-generation TCDD employee and a former director of the state-owned company’s food and beverage department, Çelebi launched the museum singlehandedly in 2005, combining the historical artefacts she had been collecting over the years. She salvaged furniture, documents, and equipment — going back to the Ottoman era — from the trash after the first wave of railway privatization took place in 2004. “In the early days of the republic, bureaucrats used the train between Istanbul and Ankara, and it was considered the best way to travel,” she explains. “I remember this from going to the Ankara Railway Station as a child with my father, who also worked for TCDD. Two hours before the departure, the train staff, dressed to the nines, would line up in front of the train doors and greet everyone. They were like flight attendants. At the restaurant car, the waiters wore white gloves.”

On the menu were items from Turkish and French cuisines, state-owned Tekel’s red and white wines made from grapes in Turkey’s southeast, and rakı, an ouzo and pastis-like high-proof anise drink that is traditionally served with mezes, a trove of olive oil-driven Middleterranean appetizers. The silver cutlery and the branded, fine porcelain ware that were used for service are still displayed at the museum in the French vitrines lining the walls. Though Lits transferred all of their equipment to TCDD in 1972 and left the country, the dining culture TCDD inherited from the company stuck around.

“About 35 years ago, I used to go to Ankara by train a lot, and TCDD had the most elegant rakı service I’ve ever seen,” says Haldun Dostoğlu, the 68-year-old curator and the co-founder of Istanbul-based Galeri Nev, with an undeniable fondness. “There was a certain stretch of years when we really looked forward to dining on the train. The waiter would appear holding a tray of rakı glasses, a glass measuring cup, a bottle of water, and an ice bucket. Resisting the rocking of the train over the rails, with the utmost grace, he first poured the rakı in the measuring cup, then transferred it into the glass, and finished by adding the water and ice on top. Not a single drop spilled on his tray as he went on with the process.”

Rakı is rarely drunk without appetizers, so he and his friends nibbled on feta cheese, slices of melon, and roasted eggplant salad as the nearly eight-hour journey began. “I really miss talking to friends while dining at the restaurant car, and eventually falling asleep in the sleeper car to the sound of the train clanking over the rails,” he reminiscences.

By 1995, the first year I remember seeing the restaurant car, the white gloves and the silver cutlery were long gone. But it was still OK to drink and smoke in the restaurant car. Restless as children get, my mom, my toddler brother and I took walks through cars, up until we hit the smoke-filled restaurant car as the train rattled through the snowy landscape from Istanbul, where we lived, to our hometown, Eskişehir. Behind the glass door, with its white tablecloths, tiny porcelain vases carrying fresh carnations, and large groups of friends chatting, the restaurant car looked like a party on wheels. Men and women drank Efes, the local beer, as they snacked on roasted, salty peanuts; or, they munched on a plate of index finger-shaped köfte, Turkish meatballs, served with a side of buttery white rice, a roasted pepper, and half of a tomato. Later, as a sulky teenager and then college student searching for identity, I sat in the restaurant car countless times, slurping beers trying to impress a guy I liked, and waiting for that magical moment where the rails are so close to the edge of the Marmara Sea that it feels like the train is literally moving on the surface of the sea. Although at this point—around the mid 2000s—the food was offensively bad, this stretch of the trip was still best enjoyed from the restaurant car.

I asked Ali Yavuz, a friend I often ran into in the restaurant car during my early 20s, why people like us insisted on sitting there. “Oh, just to be together,” he answered. “To be perfectly honest, the restaurant car was like a bad meyhane at best. The food wasn’t good. Back when people were allowed to smoke in the train, a heavy fog hung in the air. But we liked hanging out there, and we liked being able to have a beer whenever we felt like it.”

Together, Ali and I recounted the names of the trains and what they looked like, which were  mysteriously unsearchable on the Internet: the navy and red “Başkent” (“the capital” in Turkish), which was a relatively new train; “Fatih” (“the conqueror”), which left Ankara around late night and arrived at the beautiful Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul with the first lights of the morning; the eggshell blue “Anadolu” (“Anatolia”) which was a train from the ’60s and definitely smelt and looked like it with its formica covered, moth-eaten French lace-curtained dining car. We then counted the menu items we could remember: the ever-present köfte, cigarette pastries (fried phyllo dough filled with feta cheese—frankly, they should be called cigar pastries), french fries, and mezes like the milky, dried mint-speckled haydari and the bright red acılı ezme. The elusive fried liver was always on the menu but, for reasons unknown, rarely available.   

The AK Party, who first came to rule in 2003 with promises of freedom and peace, began actively seeking votes from Turkey’s liberals and the country’s tight-knit LGBTQ+ community. However, since 2011, it grew more authoritarian and less tolerant of outwardly-secular lifestyles. The party also became increasingly obsessed with both new transportation projects, and where and when alcoholic beverages should be consumed. New roads were built alongside brand new, high-speed train tracks cutting the travel time between Istanbul and Ankara to half. Meanwhile, a series of bans on alcohol were implemented, starting with the neighborhood bars. In 2011, serving alcohol on the outside tables of the restaurants and bars were banned in Istanbul, followed by another law banning the sale of alcohol after 10 PM in 2013. The same law marked the end of advertisements for liquor, spirits, wine and beer brands, and sponsorship opportunities. In 2014, five years after high speed trains first started operating, alcohol was “retracted” from all railway lines, citing an overall “lack of consumer interest.” These days, the only food options on the train are pre-packaged snacks and microwaveable airplane food served on a plastic tray, wrapped in the cheapest single-use plastic. Meanwhile, on the ground, wine, beer, liquor, and spirits are taxed at over 69 percent, and the prices for alcoholic drinks have grown exorbitantly high over the last five years.

Many people in Turkey, including myself, can’t help but feel targeted by AK Party’s “ideological” lifestyle-related decisions. The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey. The death of the restaurant car is also a missing link from an ongoing narrative of the republic. From construction and architecture, to landscape planning and dictating, where and how exactly the public can and should socialize, this hegemony’s cultural policy is based on taking away, not unlike a vacuum cleaner. At the end of the day, what we are left with is the discontinuity and emptiness.

The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey.

In 2017, when I last walked into the restaurant car of the Eskişehir-İzmir train in the wee hours in hopes of a cup of coffee, I immediately wished I hadn’t. In the 7 AM light, the curtains, tablecloths, and porcelain ware were all gone. I caught a glimpse of the all-steel kitchen, the equipment still there but sterile like an operation room. I looked at the empty restaurant car with shame, as if it was left clothless against its will, a scene of obscenity or something’s deathbed.

I asked for a coffee. The clerk, a young man wearing a tughra-imprinted ring, offered a paper cup with some hot water and a gold-tinted aluminium diffuser with a few holes poked on one end. It was Italian coffee and I had to stir it until the instant coffee dissolved, he explained, not looking into the eyes of a single woman travelling by herself. Instead, plastic-looking breakfast sandwiches wrapped in more plastic looked back at me. Did getting to a place faster always mean progress, especially if all that was left to look forward to were these shitty sandwiches? I still doubt it.

Defying Definition: Greek Street Food

Defying Definition: Greek Street Food

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The first time I ate at Cantina, it was 3 AM, and I had been hopping around Athens’ many nightclubs for hours. I was ready for something hearty and cheap – and Cantina was the perfect choice, serving customers in my state in that exact spot on Syggrou Avenue since 1993. The owner, Thanasis Kavadas, methodically puts the hot dog together, piling carrot slaw, ketchup, mustard, and a homemade mayonnaise (with a top-secret chemist-made recipe). Everybody knows this place, but the exact definition of the food is up for debate, as it becomes co-opted by trendy restaurants and cafes.

Food in Greece is ever-evolving. In addition to the stellar tavernas and mezedopoleia (or meze restaurants) that have almost always existed, a hungry traveller can also find hole-in-the-wall Thai spots, custom-made sushi, and even American-style burgers. But “street food” seems to be one of the most popular categories. The term itself seems to have developed into a description for just about any type of food in the country, whether or not it actually applies to something that can be eaten on the street. During an evening walk around Athens, I saw it used on menus and restaurant signs to describe dishes like stir fries and ramen. And while street food might be a trend worldwide, it has become an interesting issue in the Greek food world as they try to balance incoming trends with established culinary traditions.

First, there’s the definition. Michalis Michael, editor-in-chief at the Greek publication Lifo, says that “the few things that we consider ‘street’ in Greek food culture were not served on the street.” This, he says, is in contrast to “cantina” food, a more recent invention in the country. Michael tells me that this food is also known as vromiko, or dirty, and it existed primarily around football stadiums. But this distinction, which many street food vendors themselves (including Thanasis) maintain, only create more questions than answers.

Michael also says that the most popular Greek street food, souvlaki, was actually sold in a brick-and-mortar shop. But it’s not just the most popular, it’s also the oldest. According to Greek chef, food stylist, and TV consultant Carolina Doriti, the word has appeared in Homer’s Iliad, and Aristotle and others have referenced its original term obeliskos in philosophical texts. According to Doriti, pies (like the widely-known tiropita and spanakopita) were another “original” street food - Ancient Greeks brought cheese and meat pies to hear public speeches and performances. Other Greek food writers have broadened the term to include anything that you can consume on the go, from sandwiches to coconut. One of Greece’s most established street vendors has a coconut stand on Ermou Street, the main pedestrian street in Athens. He lobs the top off, and you sip the milk through a straw as you walk.

In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back. Some, like Thanasi, are still feeling the effects of that today. His stand used to be surrounded by clubs during what Thanasi calls “the good years.” Back then it was fun, he says – his customers included celebrities, and they’d line up around the block for one of his €3 hot dogs (which are still sold at the same price). Three people worked in the shop’s tight space. Now, Thanasi is able to handle the workload alone.

In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back.

One of the places where street food appears in name only is Estrella, a brunch restaurant that originated in Thessaloniki, north of Athens. Dimitris Koparanis, the chef and mastermind behind the menu, says that Estrella began using the tag “World Street Food” since it opened in 2013. People would wait in line for hours for the restaurant’s signature dish, the bougatsan, a combination of typical Greek dessert bougatsa and a croissant. Koparanis says that when they first opened, street food was still the traditional Greek fare: souvlaki, gyros, pies, and koulouri, a circle of baked dough covered in sesame seeds.

Although Koparanis drew much of the menu’s inspiration from these traditional street foods, he acknowledges that what he makes, by definition, cannot be street food.  For instance, the koulouri breakfast pizza is made with tomato sauce, cheese, and eggs on top of a koulouri base. For him, street food specifically is “the food cooked outside or in a small kitchen, served in a way to be consumed by [sic] hand, on the go. It is cheap and with an intense flavor.” But, perhaps most importantly, “there is no sense in serving street food in a restaurant.”

He’s not the only Greek chef who feels this way. In a November 2018 article in Lifo, chef Giorgos Venieris, of the Chalandri neighborhood’s popular Mr. Pug, expresses a similar sentiment: “Street food is only on the street, the salesman on the street selling chestnuts, corn, buns, falafel, skewers... Street food in a shop is not street food.” And the more I come to learn about what Greek street food has always been, the more I believe that it is losing its identity to bigger establishments.

Kiria Pitza is another surviving street food legend. For 40 years, she has been serving souvlaki out of a stand she built onto the front of her house. Even though her stand is a 15-minute drive outside of the city center, in a neighborhood called Koridallos, her souvlaki is worth the trip. She garnishes the meat in a smoky red sauce that Pitza claims only involves two ingredients - and nobody but Pitza herself knows what those are. In the time that I was there, Pitza had a steady flow of customers at her takeout window (there’s no seating anywhere) and is answering phone calls requesting delivery, so she is consistently busy. There’s no other souvlaki in the city like this, both in the experience and the flavor; but after her retirement, the stand and her magic sauce will no longer exist. Even though she pays taxes and her operation is fully legal, government regulations say she can’t pass this business down to her sons, so she and her loyal customers have resigned themselves to the end after her reign.

This regulation has affected other street food vendors as well. Some simply moved to permanent storefronts adjacent to their temporary setup, but others were forced to close altogether, leaving behind legacies and stories of great street food. So far, vendors like Thanasis have managed to avoid this fate, but if they continue to need to compete with established restaurants, it’s difficult to say how much longer this hot dog institution will remain.

Thanasis is proud of what he has, but he keeps his mind on the good old days: “Don’t pour salt in my wound,” he says when I ask about the future.

Defying Definition: Greek Street Food

Defying Definition: Greek Street Food

Next story

The first time I ate at Cantina, it was 3 AM, and I had been hopping around Athens’ many nightclubs for hours. I was ready for something hearty and cheap – and Cantina was the perfect choice, serving customers in my state in that exact spot on Syggrou Avenue since 1993. The owner, Thanasis Kavadas, methodically puts the hot dog together, piling carrot slaw, ketchup, mustard, and a homemade mayonnaise (with a top-secret chemist-made recipe). Everybody knows this place, but the exact definition of the food is up for debate, as it becomes co-opted by trendy restaurants and cafes.

Food in Greece is ever-evolving. In addition to the stellar tavernas and mezedopoleia (or meze restaurants) that have almost always existed, a hungry traveller can also find hole-in-the-wall Thai spots, custom-made sushi, and even American-style burgers. But “street food” seems to be one of the most popular categories. The term itself seems to have developed into a description for just about any type of food in the country, whether or not it actually applies to something that can be eaten on the street. During an evening walk around Athens, I saw it used on menus and restaurant signs to describe dishes like stir fries and ramen. And while street food might be a trend worldwide, it has become an interesting issue in the Greek food world as they try to balance incoming trends with established culinary traditions.

First, there’s the definition. Michalis Michael, editor-in-chief at the Greek publication Lifo, says that “the few things that we consider ‘street’ in Greek food culture were not served on the street.” This, he says, is in contrast to “cantina” food, a more recent invention in the country. Michael tells me that this food is also known as vromiko, or dirty, and it existed primarily around football stadiums. But this distinction, which many street food vendors themselves (including Thanasis) maintain, only create more questions than answers.

Michael also says that the most popular Greek street food, souvlaki, was actually sold in a brick-and-mortar shop. But it’s not just the most popular, it’s also the oldest. According to Greek chef, food stylist, and TV consultant Carolina Doriti, the word has appeared in Homer’s Iliad, and Aristotle and others have referenced its original term obeliskos in philosophical texts. According to Doriti, pies (like the widely-known tiropita and spanakopita) were another “original” street food - Ancient Greeks brought cheese and meat pies to hear public speeches and performances. Other Greek food writers have broadened the term to include anything that you can consume on the go, from sandwiches to coconut. One of Greece’s most established street vendors has a coconut stand on Ermou Street, the main pedestrian street in Athens. He lobs the top off, and you sip the milk through a straw as you walk.

In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back. Some, like Thanasi, are still feeling the effects of that today. His stand used to be surrounded by clubs during what Thanasi calls “the good years.” Back then it was fun, he says – his customers included celebrities, and they’d line up around the block for one of his €3 hot dogs (which are still sold at the same price). Three people worked in the shop’s tight space. Now, Thanasi is able to handle the workload alone.

In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back.

One of the places where street food appears in name only is Estrella, a brunch restaurant that originated in Thessaloniki, north of Athens. Dimitris Koparanis, the chef and mastermind behind the menu, says that Estrella began using the tag “World Street Food” since it opened in 2013. People would wait in line for hours for the restaurant’s signature dish, the bougatsan, a combination of typical Greek dessert bougatsa and a croissant. Koparanis says that when they first opened, street food was still the traditional Greek fare: souvlaki, gyros, pies, and koulouri, a circle of baked dough covered in sesame seeds.

Although Koparanis drew much of the menu’s inspiration from these traditional street foods, he acknowledges that what he makes, by definition, cannot be street food.  For instance, the koulouri breakfast pizza is made with tomato sauce, cheese, and eggs on top of a koulouri base. For him, street food specifically is “the food cooked outside or in a small kitchen, served in a way to be consumed by [sic] hand, on the go. It is cheap and with an intense flavor.” But, perhaps most importantly, “there is no sense in serving street food in a restaurant.”

He’s not the only Greek chef who feels this way. In a November 2018 article in Lifo, chef Giorgos Venieris, of the Chalandri neighborhood’s popular Mr. Pug, expresses a similar sentiment: “Street food is only on the street, the salesman on the street selling chestnuts, corn, buns, falafel, skewers... Street food in a shop is not street food.” And the more I come to learn about what Greek street food has always been, the more I believe that it is losing its identity to bigger establishments.

Kiria Pitza is another surviving street food legend. For 40 years, she has been serving souvlaki out of a stand she built onto the front of her house. Even though her stand is a 15-minute drive outside of the city center, in a neighborhood called Koridallos, her souvlaki is worth the trip. She garnishes the meat in a smoky red sauce that Pitza claims only involves two ingredients - and nobody but Pitza herself knows what those are. In the time that I was there, Pitza had a steady flow of customers at her takeout window (there’s no seating anywhere) and is answering phone calls requesting delivery, so she is consistently busy. There’s no other souvlaki in the city like this, both in the experience and the flavor; but after her retirement, the stand and her magic sauce will no longer exist. Even though she pays taxes and her operation is fully legal, government regulations say she can’t pass this business down to her sons, so she and her loyal customers have resigned themselves to the end after her reign.

This regulation has affected other street food vendors as well. Some simply moved to permanent storefronts adjacent to their temporary setup, but others were forced to close altogether, leaving behind legacies and stories of great street food. So far, vendors like Thanasis have managed to avoid this fate, but if they continue to need to compete with established restaurants, it’s difficult to say how much longer this hot dog institution will remain.

Thanasis is proud of what he has, but he keeps his mind on the good old days: “Don’t pour salt in my wound,” he says when I ask about the future.

Defying Definition: Greek Street Food

Defying Definition: Greek Street Food

Next story

The first time I ate at Cantina, it was 3 AM, and I had been hopping around Athens’ many nightclubs for hours. I was ready for something hearty and cheap – and Cantina was the perfect choice, serving customers in my state in that exact spot on Syggrou Avenue since 1993. The owner, Thanasis Kavadas, methodically puts the hot dog together, piling carrot slaw, ketchup, mustard, and a homemade mayonnaise (with a top-secret chemist-made recipe). Everybody knows this place, but the exact definition of the food is up for debate, as it becomes co-opted by trendy restaurants and cafes.

Food in Greece is ever-evolving. In addition to the stellar tavernas and mezedopoleia (or meze restaurants) that have almost always existed, a hungry traveller can also find hole-in-the-wall Thai spots, custom-made sushi, and even American-style burgers. But “street food” seems to be one of the most popular categories. The term itself seems to have developed into a description for just about any type of food in the country, whether or not it actually applies to something that can be eaten on the street. During an evening walk around Athens, I saw it used on menus and restaurant signs to describe dishes like stir fries and ramen. And while street food might be a trend worldwide, it has become an interesting issue in the Greek food world as they try to balance incoming trends with established culinary traditions.

First, there’s the definition. Michalis Michael, editor-in-chief at the Greek publication Lifo, says that “the few things that we consider ‘street’ in Greek food culture were not served on the street.” This, he says, is in contrast to “cantina” food, a more recent invention in the country. Michael tells me that this food is also known as vromiko, or dirty, and it existed primarily around football stadiums. But this distinction, which many street food vendors themselves (including Thanasis) maintain, only create more questions than answers.

Michael also says that the most popular Greek street food, souvlaki, was actually sold in a brick-and-mortar shop. But it’s not just the most popular, it’s also the oldest. According to Greek chef, food stylist, and TV consultant Carolina Doriti, the word has appeared in Homer’s Iliad, and Aristotle and others have referenced its original term obeliskos in philosophical texts. According to Doriti, pies (like the widely-known tiropita and spanakopita) were another “original” street food - Ancient Greeks brought cheese and meat pies to hear public speeches and performances. Other Greek food writers have broadened the term to include anything that you can consume on the go, from sandwiches to coconut. One of Greece’s most established street vendors has a coconut stand on Ermou Street, the main pedestrian street in Athens. He lobs the top off, and you sip the milk through a straw as you walk.

In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back. Some, like Thanasi, are still feeling the effects of that today. His stand used to be surrounded by clubs during what Thanasi calls “the good years.” Back then it was fun, he says – his customers included celebrities, and they’d line up around the block for one of his €3 hot dogs (which are still sold at the same price). Three people worked in the shop’s tight space. Now, Thanasi is able to handle the workload alone.

In all, the definition of street food might be: affordable and accessible. Because of these traits, some established street food places were able to survive Greece’s economic crisis, which began in 2008, even though restaurant owners may have had to scale back.

One of the places where street food appears in name only is Estrella, a brunch restaurant that originated in Thessaloniki, north of Athens. Dimitris Koparanis, the chef and mastermind behind the menu, says that Estrella began using the tag “World Street Food” since it opened in 2013. People would wait in line for hours for the restaurant’s signature dish, the bougatsan, a combination of typical Greek dessert bougatsa and a croissant. Koparanis says that when they first opened, street food was still the traditional Greek fare: souvlaki, gyros, pies, and koulouri, a circle of baked dough covered in sesame seeds.

Although Koparanis drew much of the menu’s inspiration from these traditional street foods, he acknowledges that what he makes, by definition, cannot be street food.  For instance, the koulouri breakfast pizza is made with tomato sauce, cheese, and eggs on top of a koulouri base. For him, street food specifically is “the food cooked outside or in a small kitchen, served in a way to be consumed by [sic] hand, on the go. It is cheap and with an intense flavor.” But, perhaps most importantly, “there is no sense in serving street food in a restaurant.”

He’s not the only Greek chef who feels this way. In a November 2018 article in Lifo, chef Giorgos Venieris, of the Chalandri neighborhood’s popular Mr. Pug, expresses a similar sentiment: “Street food is only on the street, the salesman on the street selling chestnuts, corn, buns, falafel, skewers... Street food in a shop is not street food.” And the more I come to learn about what Greek street food has always been, the more I believe that it is losing its identity to bigger establishments.

Kiria Pitza is another surviving street food legend. For 40 years, she has been serving souvlaki out of a stand she built onto the front of her house. Even though her stand is a 15-minute drive outside of the city center, in a neighborhood called Koridallos, her souvlaki is worth the trip. She garnishes the meat in a smoky red sauce that Pitza claims only involves two ingredients - and nobody but Pitza herself knows what those are. In the time that I was there, Pitza had a steady flow of customers at her takeout window (there’s no seating anywhere) and is answering phone calls requesting delivery, so she is consistently busy. There’s no other souvlaki in the city like this, both in the experience and the flavor; but after her retirement, the stand and her magic sauce will no longer exist. Even though she pays taxes and her operation is fully legal, government regulations say she can’t pass this business down to her sons, so she and her loyal customers have resigned themselves to the end after her reign.

This regulation has affected other street food vendors as well. Some simply moved to permanent storefronts adjacent to their temporary setup, but others were forced to close altogether, leaving behind legacies and stories of great street food. So far, vendors like Thanasis have managed to avoid this fate, but if they continue to need to compete with established restaurants, it’s difficult to say how much longer this hot dog institution will remain.

Thanasis is proud of what he has, but he keeps his mind on the good old days: “Don’t pour salt in my wound,” he says when I ask about the future.

A Mouth Without Mushrooms

A Mouth Without Mushrooms

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“I don’t like mushrooms” he’d say
but she always added them anyway.
Not to spite him, or to make him mad, but
because she had faith
that one day, she’d find a mushroom he liked
and prepare them so well,
so uniquely

that he would fall in love
with the flavour, texture, and prospect,

of mushrooms.
Creamy, earthy, velvety; a profile
that only comes with time,
and just the right environment;
Humid, fertile and moderately cool.
She had a feeling the relationship wouldn’t work
as soon as she heard these words
loosely fall from his mouth.
A mouth filled with an army of taste buds she disagreed with;

Taste buds she was willing to challenge, until triumph.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

She wondered how

she could lust over lips,

attached to a mouth,

housing a tongue

that didn’t care for the future

of mushrooms.

Didn’t care to even explore their potential.
“I don’t like mushrooms”
But “there are so many varieties” she’d say
Trumpet, Hedgehog, Hen of The Wood, Chanterelle;

All different in origin, color, shape, flavor.

Thousands of varieties;
still undiscovered.
How can someone possibly say that?
“I don’t like mushrooms”
It was her duty, on behalf of all mushrooms
Known and unknown
to change his mind.
She felt perplexed when he didn’t

eat the mushroom soup she’d cooked that night.

She thought the time had come

for his taste buds to surrender;
For him to smile sweetly
and acknowledge

that this soup’s intense, toasty, buttery state,

was undeniably delicious.

Yet it went to waste, in a mouth with no respect, for Morel.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

She sat alone at the dining room table

Watching him

eat a sad, mushroomless pizza on the couch

that he ordered, without her input

or even asking if she wanted a slice,

of his pizza.

A pizza which would have been far superior

with some finely sliced Portobellos.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

Although she felt defeated that night,
she would continue,
to add mushrooms

to new recipes
and dutifully apologise

after yet another unintelligible review.

Apologise,
on behalf of the chosen variety
and her continued desire to feed him
something he didn’t like.
To ultimately,
choose fungus
over her love for him.

A Mouth Without Mushrooms

A Mouth Without Mushrooms

Next story

“I don’t like mushrooms” he’d say
but she always added them anyway.
Not to spite him, or to make him mad, but
because she had faith
that one day, she’d find a mushroom he liked
and prepare them so well,
so uniquely

that he would fall in love
with the flavour, texture, and prospect,

of mushrooms.
Creamy, earthy, velvety; a profile
that only comes with time,
and just the right environment;
Humid, fertile and moderately cool.
She had a feeling the relationship wouldn’t work
as soon as she heard these words
loosely fall from his mouth.
A mouth filled with an army of taste buds she disagreed with;

Taste buds she was willing to challenge, until triumph.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

She wondered how

she could lust over lips,

attached to a mouth,

housing a tongue

that didn’t care for the future

of mushrooms.

Didn’t care to even explore their potential.
“I don’t like mushrooms”
But “there are so many varieties” she’d say
Trumpet, Hedgehog, Hen of The Wood, Chanterelle;

All different in origin, color, shape, flavor.

Thousands of varieties;
still undiscovered.
How can someone possibly say that?
“I don’t like mushrooms”
It was her duty, on behalf of all mushrooms
Known and unknown
to change his mind.
She felt perplexed when he didn’t

eat the mushroom soup she’d cooked that night.

She thought the time had come

for his taste buds to surrender;
For him to smile sweetly
and acknowledge

that this soup’s intense, toasty, buttery state,

was undeniably delicious.

Yet it went to waste, in a mouth with no respect, for Morel.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

She sat alone at the dining room table

Watching him

eat a sad, mushroomless pizza on the couch

that he ordered, without her input

or even asking if she wanted a slice,

of his pizza.

A pizza which would have been far superior

with some finely sliced Portobellos.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

Although she felt defeated that night,
she would continue,
to add mushrooms

to new recipes
and dutifully apologise

after yet another unintelligible review.

Apologise,
on behalf of the chosen variety
and her continued desire to feed him
something he didn’t like.
To ultimately,
choose fungus
over her love for him.

A Mouth Without Mushrooms

A Mouth Without Mushrooms

Next story

“I don’t like mushrooms” he’d say
but she always added them anyway.
Not to spite him, or to make him mad, but
because she had faith
that one day, she’d find a mushroom he liked
and prepare them so well,
so uniquely

that he would fall in love
with the flavour, texture, and prospect,

of mushrooms.
Creamy, earthy, velvety; a profile
that only comes with time,
and just the right environment;
Humid, fertile and moderately cool.
She had a feeling the relationship wouldn’t work
as soon as she heard these words
loosely fall from his mouth.
A mouth filled with an army of taste buds she disagreed with;

Taste buds she was willing to challenge, until triumph.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

She wondered how

she could lust over lips,

attached to a mouth,

housing a tongue

that didn’t care for the future

of mushrooms.

Didn’t care to even explore their potential.
“I don’t like mushrooms”
But “there are so many varieties” she’d say
Trumpet, Hedgehog, Hen of The Wood, Chanterelle;

All different in origin, color, shape, flavor.

Thousands of varieties;
still undiscovered.
How can someone possibly say that?
“I don’t like mushrooms”
It was her duty, on behalf of all mushrooms
Known and unknown
to change his mind.
She felt perplexed when he didn’t

eat the mushroom soup she’d cooked that night.

She thought the time had come

for his taste buds to surrender;
For him to smile sweetly
and acknowledge

that this soup’s intense, toasty, buttery state,

was undeniably delicious.

Yet it went to waste, in a mouth with no respect, for Morel.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

She sat alone at the dining room table

Watching him

eat a sad, mushroomless pizza on the couch

that he ordered, without her input

or even asking if she wanted a slice,

of his pizza.

A pizza which would have been far superior

with some finely sliced Portobellos.

“I don’t like mushrooms”

Although she felt defeated that night,
she would continue,
to add mushrooms

to new recipes
and dutifully apologise

after yet another unintelligible review.

Apologise,
on behalf of the chosen variety
and her continued desire to feed him
something he didn’t like.
To ultimately,
choose fungus
over her love for him.