(originally published in fall 2019, in my boyfriend's substack).
My grandmother on my dad’s side lives in a relatively remote village in southeast China. She speaks no English. She also speaks close to zero Mandarin, which means we have functionally zero avenues for meaningful communication. I’ve visited her three times in my life, for maybe a cumulative 4 weeks, max.
The first time, I was four. All I really remember from that trip was the shock, first of seeing chickens in my grandma’s tiny yard when I got there, then later of walking downstairs the next morning only to find her clutching a limp chicken (!) by the neck (!!) the same way one would carry a bag of groceries. I was twelve the second time, and aside from the sticky humid heat, my most vivid memory from that visit is of fish bones, or rather bony fish: multiple plates at every meal, filled with fish that had more bones than meat. But this was the good fish, everyone assured me. I didn’t think much of either trip at the time, being an oblivious toddler the first time and self-absorbed preteen the next.
The last time I saw her was the summer before college. I remember so much more from this trip, and most distinctly that she was always feeding me: heaping bowls of thick, chewy noodles bigger than my face, every threeish hours (between-meal snacks, she’d tell my dad to explain to me); the rickety kitchen table, crammed with vegetables and meat (and yes, that bony fish); so much fruit and so many snacks, at all hours of the day. Once, she asked if I wanted an egg; around 20 minutes after I said yes, she brought up a bowl of no less than 6 or 7 hard-boiled eggs.
It’s hard to put into words why this means so much to me. After all, maybe it’s just basic hospitality—you bring the best to your guests, especially if they’re your son’s family who you haven’t seen in years. But maybe, it’s because it’s such a familiar expression of love—from a woman I never really knew and will never really know. You’re my granddaughter, her noodle soup says, and I love you, even though we’ve never known each other, and you’re home here. Food has always said so much more than words ever could, and in my grandmother’s case, it’s maybe the only means for her to express her love.
The reality is that cooking is work—real, tangible labor. One could call it a labor of love, but maybe it’s more accurate to say that this work is love made visible*; cooking and eating are so temporal, so ephemeral, but the work and love that goes into the food lasts long after the last drops of soup have been slurped and the last dumplings have disappeared from the plate.
My mom doesn’t say I’m sorry, but she does grind her own sesame seeds to make me tangyuan at the end of a fight. She doesn’t say I’ll miss you, but without fail, every time I’m about to leave for school again, she springs into action like I’m on a journey to Antarctica and the only food I’ll have is what I bring with me. (When I came back to school this fall, two-thirds of my carry-on space, including my backpack and my suitcase, was filled with frozen mantou.) My dad doesn’t say you’ll be okay, but he does make egg noodle soup at 5am every time I have an early morning flight. Food says you’re home. These are things I can’t, and won’t, forget.
So really, this is a love letter to the people who have cooked for me. To say, thank you, I love you, thank you, not just for the food, but for the love, folded into dumplings pleat by pleat, whipped into pancake batter, and for creating a space that feels like home.
When Christian and I first started dating, my mom would jokingly ask whether I fell for him just because he cooked for me. That’s obviously not the (only) reason we’re together, but honestly? Her question doesn’t not make sense. I’m lucky to feel so loved by so many people in so many contexts, but there’s nothing quite like eating food made by someone I love. Food from home—whatever home means—just tastes better, and I think this is why.
As an awful cook, sometimes I feel like this is something I can never really repay or be able to express in the same way. What I can do is eat, which means I gain at least 2 inches on my waistline every time I go back to Seattle. The other thing I can do is at least try to learn while I still can. I have no idea how my grandmother makes her noodles, and I’ll probably never know. But at home when I can, I sit with my mom as she kneads the dough and mixes the fillings—all from scratch—and I can help her make the dumplings (slowly) and roll out the wrappers (very, very, slowly).
I just want her to know that I see and appreciate her labor and her love. And that I’ve never had dumplings that measure up to hers.
*A quote by Khalil Gibran, taken slightly out of context here but I thought it was just shockingly relevant/ well-phrased for what I wanted to say.