Help Us Report Asks the public for input, insights, clarifications, anecdotes, documentation, etc., for reporting purposes. Callouts are a type of crowdsourcing in journalism.
In November, I wrote an essay on reclaiming my relationship with food. It was one of the most vulnerable pieces I’ve ever written, so I was a little nervous about how it would be received—but I was also curious. I wanted to know others’ stories and family histories with food. And your answers did not disappoint. In fact, I, along with the YES! team, was blown away by the depth and care that each one of you put into answering our prompt.
As promised, here are some of your heartwarming answers to our question about the food that connects you to your roots, illustrated by our associate art director, Michael Luong.
Natalie Lubsen (YES! Marketing Manager) wrote about kaese spaetzle: For Christmas a couple of years ago, my dad gave me a spaetzle-maker and a laminated copy of the handwritten recipe for kaese spaetzle he’d taken down from his grandmother Rose, my great-grandmother. I’ve eaten kaese spaetzle at family gatherings for years, often helping to stir the giant pan full of caramelizing onions to top it off, but I’d never made the noodles myself until last year.
The spaetzle-maker has a plastic cup attached to a grater that can hook onto the top of a boiling pot of water. The sticky dough goes into the cup, which slides back and forth over the grater and presses little squiggles of dough out into the water to cook. It’s a sweaty, strenuous process as you stand over the boiling water, strain out the noodles, and deposit them into a bowl in the oven and layer them with cheese. But family lore has it that Rose didn’t need a spaetzle-maker—she could make the noodles with a knife and a cutting board, letting them roll right into the pot. (We haven’t been able to recreate it.)
There are other foods that feel like family—Waldorf salad at Thanksgiving comes from my mom’s side of the family, I recently learned—but the German foods passed down from Rose tie me to something older, to generations of women standing over a boiling pot (or so I imagine). Rose’s daughter Lilly, my grandmother who passed away at the age of 96 a couple of months ago, wasn’t a big cook, but she loved eating and would proclaim that every meal my mom cooked for her through the pandemic was “Deee-licious!” I never met Rose, but I got to experience Lilly’s abundant love for more than 30 years. I wonder now if the tight-knit bonds on this side of my family are in part because of the uprooting that took place when Rose immigrated to the United States after World War I. She lived with her daughter and grandchildren as my dad grew up, and she got to teach him how to make spaetzle and pfannkuchen (a German version of the crepe). In turn, my grandmother lived nearby for most of my life and moved in with my parents when the pandemic started. The food traditions Rose passed on to us were a link to her past, to the roots she had to leave behind, but she made strong roots of love that have anchored us to one another.
Fayelessler wrote about wontons and dumplings: About three years ago, my partner and I began a new tradition of making Chinese wonton and dumplings on the Lunar New Year. The feeling of the little squares of dough with their soft tofu filling sitting in my palm as my fingers clumsily pinch and pleat the edges closed … that sensation always brings me right back to my mother’s kitchen. I’m half-Chinese, so in between the standard American dinners of salmon or spaghetti, my mom would also regularly cook dishes like chow fun, gai lan (aka Chinese broccoli), and oxtail stew. Once or twice a year, we would sit down and make a big batch of wonton to freeze and eat whenever a steaming bowl of comfort was required.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was lucky to be raised by a Chinese cook. I’ve heard from so many people in my life that they grew up in a household that didn’t eat dinners together, didn’t cook, or didn’t engage with food beyond seeing it as fuel and a tool for maximum health. But in my household, food was, and is, a vessel for love. Cooking is what we do to show each other we care, how we say, “I’m thinking of you.” Food is where we connect, converse, and share our lives.
Now that I’ve lived outside of my mother’s home for a decade or so, I’m starting to recognize just how lucky I am. As a result of her cooking, I love food. I love to cook and share my food with others. I honestly can’t think of any better way to express my love than through the holding, filling, and folding of hundreds of dumplings. Each little packet of flavor individually formed by my fingers, with my utmost attention and care.
Cooking and making dumplings is how I connect with not only my loved ones but also my ancestry. Like me, my mother was raised by cooks. Her father, my gong gong, worked at the family restaurant in LA’s Chinatown, where my ancestors fed Chinese food to railroad workers and Angelenos for three generations.
The restaurant closed before I could cook in its kitchens, but that hasn’t stopped me from inheriting our family tradition. Just like my mother, my aunts and uncles, and generations before me—food is my love language.
Charlie wrote about Christmas cake: I’ve never really thought about food until I met my husband, who is a food fanatic. He loves food, and its cultural origins and earthiness and connectivity, at a level I could never imagine. He wants to eat in all the places I find too dirty and frightening (even before COVID-19). Street food. Local cafés with old men hanging out all day in the plaza. The man in the jungle who offers to prepare ant salad.
I grew up in England and had “meat and two veg” for dinner. Food did not have a great reputation in my country at that time. We boiled and battered everything to death, and our impersonations of foreign food were pale facsimiles of the genuine article. My family had no money, so going out to dinner wasn’t a thing, and roast beef was a luxury. So when COVID-19 hit and we were at home forever, and I found myself in a rural U.S. context not understanding sheep or organic chard, and my husband was doing the subsistence thing, I realized I needed to up my game.
Being that female who, prior to the family thing, didn’t have a pan or pot, let alone a whisk, with only blunt knives and two items in the fridge, I found I had a whole new ontology to learn. I had no idea how to fry an onion, let alone bake bread. But I tried. Got up and tried again. And in the midst of all this, I asked my brother if he happened to have kept any of our mum’s recipes. Mum had died the year before COVID-19 hit, and I have yet to really believe this has happened, as I haven’t set foot in England since then. I was amazed that not only did my brother know how to find them, he’d also created a folder with all the key recipes. Recipes from 1970, which told us the cost of each portion. I started to dig them all out and recreate them—“Slade’s (yes, the group) Shepherd’s Pie,” Christmas cake, mince pies, you name it. And I loved it.
I have always had trouble with reference to my “roots” or my “culture.” I don’t know how to consider the culture of a colonial country, one that wiped out so many others. I’d always just wanted to acknowledge my awful privilege, appreciate the green fields and buses, and think of someone else’s much more colorful, cultural ways of being. But making and eating my first-ever homemade (by me) Christmas cake brought my mum, and her mum, back to me in ways that photos never would. I have begun, through that experience of eating cake, to understand that my mum is my culture. All the “old wives’ tales” she passed down to me, the odd eccentricity of the British and the vivid humor, lives on in me. Making that cake connected me to something I never knew was there.
YesFoodie_1308 wrote about sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes. I can smell the sweet fragrance wafting up the stairs, around the corner, and under the door of my studio office. It is dinner tonight. There’s nothing that takes me back home to Alabama more than the simplicity and versatility of this wonderful vegetable.
Whether roasted, baked, in pies, or in soups, sweet potatoes bring back memories of my Uncle Bro, who was a farmer, pulling up the hill to our house in his aged green vegetable truck. It would be heavy, laden with a variety of the summer’s harvest of peas, butter beans, watermelons, greens, and more. But my favorite were the sweet potatoes. It wasn’t just about the potatoes themselves; it was the scene of my mother showing appreciation of her brother’s harvest, which would feed our family for the winter in exchange for us shelling the peas and butter beans for his farm stand.
As kids, we could select our own potato to be washed and baked in a large pan in the oven as we commenced the shelling. The warmth from the oven was only rivaled by the interesting conversations in the kitchen; it was always a treat as a child to be allowed to be present during “grown-folks” talking. Soon, the fragrance from the baking potatoes would overtake all conversations in anticipation of the tasty treat ahead. This perfectly packaged food would be served with a generous amount of butter, a sprinkling of brown sugar, and a dusting of cinnamon.
For me, it simply doesn’t get much better than that, except, perhaps, to be served in a crust in the form of sweet potato pie, made by my late oldest sister, Harriet. I bake them every Thanksgiving morning in her honor. Additionally, to carry on my family’s tradition of sweet potatoes, I have introduced a special time between my young grandson and me. It is his favorite vegetable, served with butter, cinnamon, and the sweetness of generations of love.
Janny11 wrote about pie: I come from a pie family, and it was a milestone when my children could make their own pie. Here is what I have written about pie and how it relates to my roots: Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was making pies from a dessert cookbook I made a few years ago—and I read the introduction that I wrote back in 2011.
Pie is a simple offering in a complex world.
I’m a messy, imprecise cook and I like it that way.
The cake may be lopsided or the pie patched,
But its imperfection makes it real—not manufactured—hand made.
I was writing about pie—but upon reflection, I now realize I was also writing about myself and of people I admire and people I want to know. I used to feel burdened by my imperfections—my mistakes, my pain—my shoulders sore, my brow worried. I was weighted by stones in my pockets. But over time, I’ve dropped those stones one by one. They sit by streams, under a fern, and on a windowsill. I still have one or two in my pocket and in my palm—for comfort. To hold on to.
Ayu Sutriasa is the digital editor at YES!, where she edits stories in the health and wellness beat, in addition to specializing in gender and body politics. She currently lives on unceded Duwamish territory, also known as Seattle, Washington. She speaks English and French. Find more of her writing on Substack.