Today I am grateful for family dinners when (almost) all the seats at the table are filled. Usually, it’s just my mom, my brother, and me. That’s how it kinda went through most of my high school years. My dad travels a lot for work and has a lot of business dinners to attend so it does feel special when there’s more than just a few of us eating together.
In my family, we always eat at the table. Around 7 pm on most nights, we set the table with chopsticks and a soup spoon. My mom is usually working her magic in the kitchen with the exhaust fan on, the flame turned up high, the tsheee-tshee-tshee sounds of food tumbling around an extremely hot wok, smells of yumminess wafting through the kitchen door … I’m always excited and always the first at the table. And between helping my mom bring each dish to the table, I can’t help snag a few bites here and there. Once most the dishes are set, I start calling the rest of the people in the house, and slowly, each of us trickle in and find our spots at the table. My mom always makes it a point to make at least 3 to 4 dishes when there’s more than two people eating. The last dish comes after most of us have begun eating. And naturally, my mom is the last one to sit down, breathe, before picking up her chopsticks. It’s a real process – from the preparing to the cooking to the setting to the eating – filled with love and generosity.
Sitting down to put words to this experience shows just how elaborate and ceremonial a meal at home can be. This is how I’ve eaten dinners at home most of my life. So I never thought of it as special, or worth noting. I thought other families ate this way too, but that’s definitely not the case, and the foods I find familiar might not be the same foods others find heartwarming.
When I prepared dinner for myself in college, some white American suitemates once remarked at how ‘faaancy’ my food looked.
“Ooooouu~ that smells so good. What is it? It looks so faaancy!”
“Uh, it’s just some stir-fried vegetables and tofu.”
What I wanted to say was that this wasn’t fancy to me, this was dinner at home almost every night, and my mom made this sort of thing times three or four. Is it fancy because this is your idea of “ethnic” food? I don’t know why I started feeling so uncomfortable cooking the way I knew how to prepare food in front of my white American peers. I was always on guard for the next questions about what this sauce labeled with Chinese characters was, or what that weird looking vegetable was. These weren’t things I experienced first hand, but I heard the “Wow, that’s so exotic!”s hidden in their hyper-cheerful tones and in their gazes even without them saying the words.
So I guess that’s when I first realized how I ate at home is special and wonderful because it is my home, my idea of a family dinner, my family. And I don’t have to compare it with any other. We all have our different versions of home, family, family dinners, dinners at home, and all of those are valid and special and worth cherishing.
Food is what I often find my family and I around whenever we gather. Food is what nourishes the body and the soul and the connections we hold with each other. Food is love, strength, and support, in many, many ways.