Cultural Food Helps Form Connections

Growing up, my mother always sang the praises of seafood from her hometown of Qingdao, China. Every time we ate clams, she would complain that it was nothing like the food from back home and a nostalgic look would appear on her face. When we did eventually visit her parents in China one summer, I had a chance to taste the delicious seafood my mom boasted about for so many years. After taking a bite, I could vividly envision my mother’s childhood in Qingdao as she played with her friends in the narrow streets of the neighborhoods after school, coming home when her mother called her in to eat dinner, and sitting down with a giant porcelain bowl of clams recently bought from the nearby market. I finally understood the yearning she had for home. 

Food has the astounding power to connect us back to our family and cultural history. For immigrant families, making and eating ethnic food at home is a way for parents to introduce their children to their heritage. WHS Assistant Principal Mabel Huynh was born in Vietnam, and her grandparents provided a Cantonese influence on the comfort foods she enjoyed growing up. She now has a nine-year-old son and sharing Chinese food with him at home “reminds him of our past and what makes us who we are, so it’s his way of staying connected to how our family is unique.” 

Sharing food from a parent’s cultural background also allows second-generation children to better understand their family’s history and what their parents’ lives were like in their homeland. Huynh said, “I’ll tell him that this is what my mom used to make for me all the time, and he’ll eat it and start asking questions about what it was like when we were growing up.” 

Junior Anushka Desai’s family is from India, and she regularly enjoys her mother’s cooking at home that includes North Indian, South Indian and Punjabi dishes, since “it really makes [her] feel at home.” Desai said that it makes her feel special to have such a distinct experience living in Westfield, since many white American families do not have a similar cultural tie to their food, and “then [she] gets to choose who [she] share[s] that experience with.” Eating Indian food also strengthens her relationship with her family because many of her memories with her family are intertwined with food, like the roti and mango rus that her grandma used to make for her. 

Food can also demonstrate the rich history of different marginalized groups. Michele Lainof, who teaches a class about Jewish family history through food, said, “Food tells the story of our families’ pilgrimage to where we are now. Depending on where your ancestors emigrated from, your food is going to tell a different story.” For example, Latkes are a fried potato pancake, but they were originally made from cheese. When Jewish people emigrated to Russia, they couldn’t find a lot of cheese but there was an abundance of potatoes, so they started using potatoes to make latkes. 

Many Jewish celebrations also center around food. “I feel like a lot of our holidays are: they tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat!” said Lainof. Her grandmother usually made food for her family during holidays. After she passed away, it was difficult to recreate these dishes, but it was a way to honor her grandma’s memory and connect with her family’s traditions. 

Junior Carrie Tananbaum also feels that eating Jewish food on holidays helps her feel connected to her heritage, and “brings back good childhood memories of [her] grandparents making matzah ball soup for Passover.” 

Food serves as a special form of connection between people and their family history. Mandarin teacher Kim Ou-Yang said, “I would say that my love language is making food, and so I love making food, feeding other people and sharing that culture with other people.”