have a deeply complex relationship to food.
I have faced cyclical food insecurity my entire life and have managed an eating disorder; but I also view cooking, learning, and teaching about food as my life’s passion. The greatest lesson I’ve learned as a food educator is that every decision we make about food stems from not only our own memories and preferences, but generations of politics, migrations, celebrations, and scarcities. The food we cook tethers us to our pasts even if we feel there is nothing tangible linking us.
Using food to explore history has been integral to how I’ve begun to heal from my own traumas.
The summer before seventh grade, my family was evicted from our home in Phoenix, Arizona. Looking to start over, my mother moved us to Irving, Texas. We lived in an extended stay motel for months and then in a roach-infested apartment complex that preyed on the poor, Black, and undocumented. I spent the rest of middle school as the primary caregiver for my five- and seven-year-old brothers while my mother went to school during the day and worked as a server at night. Often her tips weren’t enough to keep the fridge stocked and the bills paid.
Towards the end of the month, I would make a big pot of arroz con leche. With just rice, two percent milk, sugar, and cinnamon, I could feed my brothers for days. We would pretend that having arroz con leche for dinner every night was a special treat rather than a desperate measure. Arroz con leche is just one of the “struggle staples” we would eat over the years, many of which my brothers refuse to eat now. I find myself going back to them, building upon the recipes that sustained us when we had nothing else. A part of me hopes that in doing this I can bring joy into some of the hardest moments of our collective memory.
Cooking these meals is a way for me to acknowledge where we have been, find pride in our survival, and celebrate our present. Everytime I do, I reach out to my brothers and we’ll joke about our family, sharing outrageous stories from growing up. Although they aren’t particularly good memories, they are our memories. They are proof that we existed before now.
We would move four more times between me finishing middle school and graduating high school. In that time, we would lose most of the mementos of our childhood; but the recipes that we created belong to us in a way that no physical object can. They are folded into our very existences, into the ways we nourish ourselves. My brothers are grown now, they have jobs and no longer depend on me to feed them, rather lately, they’ve fed my longing for familial intimacy.
As I become more adamant about my nonbinary and queer identity being respected and acknowledged, the lines connecting me to most of my family are becoming more faint. Though I am very close to some of my family members, I don’t speak to the majority of my family outside of large gatherings and milestone celebrations. When we do speak, misgendering and misnaming accent every conversation. In the past, I felt that as an educator it was my duty to invest as much energy and intention as I could into correcting them. Now, to preserve my well-being, I nod absently when we speak and find excuses to leave. Slowly I’ve begun opting out of these interactions and staying home instead.
Like many Black and immigrant and families, my family has always chosen to live within close proximity to each other. My grandmother immigrated with my mother, aunt, and uncle to New York from Cali, Colombia in the winter of 1984. Over the next few years, her brother and sister would join them. Wherever my immediate family migrated throughout the US, there was almost always a cohort of cousins, aunts, and uncles nearby to play with or to be loved and fed by. Having grown up with this abundance of family, being isolated from them now is a constant ache in my spirit. Lately, I soothe that ache by making sancocho.
As far as I know, our recipe for sancocho comes from my great grandmother, Mama Ofelia, but I’m sure its origin lies much farther back. While the recipe has been infinitely adjusted for ingredient availability and individual cooking styles, making sancocho makes me feel more connected to my lineage than I think I ever will be in person. As a trans, queer child of the African Diaspora, this is the magic of cooking. Mama Ofelia sits beside me every time I slice into a platano. Her pastry chef sister, Tia Lola, guides my hands when I bake. Although I was never able to meet them in life, through food I am able to speak and commune with my ancestors.
I often feel that my past, my family, and my ancestry are islands surrounding me on all sides and I am alone in the center of an ocean. But if my loneliness is the sea, cooking is the houseboat I’ve built out of scraps from the islands. It allows me to sustain myself on my own, and visit when I please.