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Teenagers share the dishes and culinary traditions that have been passed down in their families.
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This week we asked students “What foods are closely linked to someone you love?” The question was inspired by the essay “My Greek Father’s Simple, Comforting Bowl of Chickpeas and Spinach” by Alex Moshakis.
“Lately I’ve found that the process of cooking revithia me spanaki helps me locate my father in memory. It revives both place and mood,” Mr. Moshakis writes in the essay. “Now when my son asks what my father was like, what he loved, what I remember of him, I can show him. ‘Here,’ I’ll say, and lay a dish of chickpeas and spinach on the table.”
Mr. Moshakis’s words clearly resonated with students. They wrote in to share the foods and culinary traditions that stir up memories of the people they love — a mother’s perfectly spiced rasam and rice, a grandmother’s menudo, a father and son grilling tradition, a cardamom bread recipe passed down through generations, a Chinese New Year radish cake that “represents the love from my family.”
Food is more than just fuel, these teenagers said, it’s connection, it’s history, it’s heritage, it’s tradition. As one student put it: “Food is how people can show affection to one another while also building stronger bonds.”
Thank you to all those who joined the conversation on our writing prompts this week, including students from Bethany Community School in Summerfield, N.C.; Sherman E. Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, Calif.; and Kekaulike High School in Pukalani, Hawaii.
Please note: Student comments have been lightly edited for length, but otherwise appear as they were originally submitted.
A food that’s closely linked to a loved one is French toast. My grandfather showed me how to make french toast at the ripe age of 10. When he first taught me, I made it for 2 weeks straight for breakfast! The eggs for the fluffiness to the whipped cream for an extra hint of sweetness. My granddad was the playful type. He would put some whipped cream on my face. Even today, every time I make French toast for my sisters, I crack a smile.
— Jaiya, Caton
Commonly, my immediate family and my relatives meet for a Sunday Dinner. Often my grandmother will make brownies for dessert. Her house would smell of sweet chocolate from the moment you would walk in, and if she brought it to another relative’s house or my house, it would sometimes be the highlight of the night. Sometimes if she made them right before the family meets, they would melt in your mouth. She uses a box recipe, but she adjusts it by adding chocolate so they are extra gooey. Every time I eat another person’s brownie I always think of how good hers are … Perhaps it is because the chocolate reminds me of her sweetness of her, a kind old woman who loves her grandchildren.
— Shannon, Sherman E. Burroughs High School, CA
A good dish isn’t just a good dish — it’s food that will remind you of someone special. My grandma is that special person, my grandma makes the best Menudo. When I walk downstairs and see my grandma dancing around the kitchen making her Menudo my face lights up. My whole family eats it together, it’s one of those special things for us.
— Anna, Union High School
When I was a little girl I would go out a lot, especially with my grandparents. It was like a second batch of parents. We’d always go to this town Cierco, IL. This town was filled with many Mexican restaurants, stores, swaps, street vendors, etc. I always loved going there. But there was this old man who would sell Empanadas de arroz con leche, they were perfect every single time, that man would never miss. They were the perfect combination of sweet arroz con leche with a crisp outside that was dusted in sugar and cinnamon. Every time I visit Chicago I crave those Empanadas … These empanadas give me memories of all the great times I spent with my grandparents.
— Alize, Highland Park High School
Being an Indian means you’re exposed to the most delicious, delicate, luscious flavors in the world. Even with all the amazing food I’ve eaten on my many trips to India, only one has my heart; my mom’s rasam and rice. This is the one food I eat almost everyday, it’s a staple in my diet, but it’s still my favorite because of the intricate flavors that get put together to always make an amazing meal. Another thing about rasam is that it is different in every single household. The balance of spices might be different, or some ingredients might be substituted for something else. Yet, with all the Indian households I’ve been to, my mom’s still amounts to all the hype I give it. Somehow she’s got the perfect balance of the tomato, garlic, and tangy tamarind.
Memories of my coming down stairs with the aroma of the familiar combinations of spices I know too well, come to me when thinking about this food. Sitting at the table eating rasam and rice while my mom tries very hard to catch my little brother and make him eat his food, while me and my dad laugh at my poor mothers struggling, is part of this food’s history. Every time I think of the perfect meal to save me from bloating (like other Indian food), make me full and happy, or just remind me of my home and family, I think of my mother’s rasam.
— Paris, George I Sanchez
As one of my favorite characters from Brooklyn 99 Charles Boyle would say, “Food is a love language,” and I would agree with him. Food is how people can show affection to one another while also building stronger bonds.
One meal that has a close sentimental value to me is steak and sautéed spinach. Whenever my mom would be out of town or go out with her friends, me and my dad would make this meal. This meal was more than just your average dinner. We would both go out to the grill and grill it together while my dad would give me advice to become a better person and it also gave me chances to ask him about what he did as a kid. I will cherish this meal for a long time and hope to have the same meal with my son one day.
— Aidan, Glenbard West High School
Olive Garden breadsticks. Every year for my mom’s birthday and my own we would round the family up and head to Olive Garden. Each time without a doubt the night would end with my mom and me full on breadsticks and having to take our meals to go. My dad would laugh at us as we complained about feeling sick on the car ride back, while my sister would yell at my dad for “being a bully” despite all of us laughing along with him.
I love birthday dinners like this because it really shows who we are as a family. We often don’t get to eat together due to my dad’s job and my crazy schedule, so any chance we have to eat as a family we take. Plus I’ll always love Olive Garden’s breadsticks, even when they change the recipe.
— Callie, Cambridge-Isanti High School
No dish is more notorious in my family than turkey chili. The simple, yet hearty meal has been a staple in my family ever since I was young. My dad was in the military and often traveled for months at a time for his job, so when he came home, there was a big celebration. At the time, money was a little tighter, so a mix of beans and turkey (rather than beef) was the best option that everyone could contribute to cooking. Stews were also often on our stove because they are a big part of the Jewish tradition. Turkey chili still brings back feelings of importance, simplicity, and warmth. One bowl, obviously paired with some challah, brought our whole family together, despite our busy schedules.
— Zoe, New Jersey
Born and raised in Burma, my mother would always cook and put a different dish on the dinner table every evening, ever since I was a young boy. It was always a joy trying the new combinations of flavors she’d create in our kitchen, the various spices and seasonings satisfyingly mashing together to make exotic and delectable foods. Out of all of the dishes she would make, there was only one that would catch my eye, only one that would make me excitedly beg for when she would ask me, “What would you like for dinner?”
Lor Mee was a type of noodle dish that consisted of slow cooked chicken or pork, a thick sort of gravy soup and thick noodles, almost like udon giving it an amazing contrast in carbs and protein. It’s a very nutritional dish, and it’s something that I would eat for days and days without end. I would always crave the dish as a child and it was a comforting food that would always warm me up in the cold winter nights and remind me of the nostalgic cloudless summer evenings. Lor Mee reminds me of the memories I’ve made at home, and my mom working tirelessly to fill my stomach with all the delicious food she’s made for me, and for that I love Lor Mee.
— William, San Francisco, CA
A special food tradition that I hold close to my heart is the making of cardamom bread. The recipe has been passed down for generations in my family and is truly the best to eat toasted with butter on Christmas morning. My dad has recently become very committed to his bread making game. It’s the best to wake up and see him braiding the loaves perfectly and the smell of cardamom and other spices wafting through the air. This tradition is something I hope to pass onto my own children. I want them to experience the love, care, and time spent together making and enjoying food just like I have.
— Olivia, Cambridge-Isanti High School, Minnesota
I come from a Chinese family, and when I eat dumplings, it reminds me of my grandma, who lives on the other side of the world. We video chat her almost every night, but I yearn for her skillful dumpling cooking. They come in assorted flavors, like the fresh pork and cabbage that just makes taste buds explode, corn and carrots for a fall taste, and the classic chives with ground pork dipped in soy sauce, shrimp, and ginger. It is enough to make you roll up your eyes in ecstasy.
— Bohan, Texas
My great-grandparents ran a diner, and mom used to watch them working in the kitchen, and tried to copy their recipes. My mom learned how to make pies, even after my great-grandma always said to her that her pie crust recipe is a secret and it is up to my mom to develop another to become a good cook. She is usually the one that saves family gatherings, with apple pie, chocolate cream pie, and other pies. She soon passed down those pie skills and taught me the trick to being a good cook is not being perfect.
— Roxy, Burroughs High School
One of my family traditions is to have radish cake during the Chinese New Year. My mom buys radish cake at the traditional market near our house. The radish cake represents the love from my family. I think I will carry on this tradition when I get older because I like to get together with my family.
— Allison, Taipei
Every year, when Christmas comes around, my mother begins to make Moravian sugar cakes for her friends and family. She has whole mailing lists for them, adding more and more people each year. Every year she throws herself into a two week long cake-baking frenzy; in this time she organizes Christmas cards and buys way too much flour and enlists our whole family as part of the ordeal. All of my aunts on her side do this too, and I know that I’ll continue the cake-baking tradition when I have my own family. Just as the author, Alex Moshakis, makes traditional Greek food to connect to his father and son, my mother makes the recipe that has been passed through the women of our family for decades. As my mother makes Moravian sugar cakes, she always talks about how her mom made the same cakes around Christmas time, and how she’ll keep doing it as long as she can. My grandma passed away last year, but I think that she would be happy, knowing that we are still using her recipe, even now.
— Sarah, Cary High School
One dish that has been in my family tree for a very long time and is very important to me is my grandmother’s spanakopita. In my language, which is Albanian, spanakopita gets translated to byrek. Spanakopita is a savory spinach pie which can include cheese, feta, and many other filling ingredients such as spinach and meat. In my family the tradition is during New Years when each year, my grandma used to make spanakopita and put a coin inside of it. Whoever got their coin in their slice would be considered to have good luck for the year. The coin was wrapped in plastic wrap and everyone made sure to check it so they did not eat it by accident. Even though everyone knew this was made up it was a great way to bond with my family …
Last spring my grandmother returned back to Albania to live there forever. So that means this year my mom and I will try to make her spanakopita using her recipe that she has left with us. Even if it doesn’t turn out how I expected it to, I would love having and remembering the memories of recreating this traditional dish that runs in my family.
— Sophia, JR Masterman, Philadelphia, PA
A dish important to my family is Khoresh Fesenjan. It originates from Northern Iran (where my mother was born.) It is a sweet but mostly sour stew that consists of crunchy walnuts, soft chicken breast, a sweet pomegranate sauce, my grandma’s famous saffron rice, and of course typical Iranian spices such as turmeric and cumin. This dish transports me back to old memories of my grandma who has made this dish for me ever since my early childhood. The smells of the pomegranate bubbling in the pot and the saffron sprinkled on the chicken reminds me of her scent. She always smells like saffron. I worry that this recipe is going to be gone when she passes because my mother does not know it. A lot of my Iranian culture is from my grandmother and her cooking. Tons of secret recipes she has will be forgotten and I feel like a part of her will be forgotten, too. I am trying to learn some of them now so that I can always cook them to remember her when she dies. I want to pass them on to future generations so the memories of her will never be forgotten.
— Leila, Julia R. Masterman School
[M]y family eat Filipino food with our hands (aka no utensils). I wouldn’t say that this is a tradition more so as it is just a common practice with Filipino people. I think that I will carry on this tradition because it is it just something that I grew up doing. I like many dishes, for example, Sinigang, Adobo, and Arroz caldo. These recipes remind me of memories from my childhood. These dishes bring me closer to my family because I help them make and cook them, I value the time that we spend, and the effort and love that we put into each dish to make it taste delicious. I associate these memories with the warmth and feeling that I feel whenever I am with people that I love and interact with.
— Princess, CA
For the longest time, it has been a tradition in my very Italian family to have Sunday dinners or have spaghetti every holiday. Any type of pasta is definitely connected to my grandparents and the memory of my grandmother’s parents. This food is very close to my heart, both because I love it and it’s always connected to holidays and amazing memories. Being surrounded by family with food you love, celebrating together, is definitely something I cherish. This tradition has been going on for so many years-even before I was born- meaning when I grow up, my cousins and I will continue the tradition. Bringing everyone together for a holiday surrounding pasta, at 3pm, is something very important to my family and will continue on that way.
— Hailey, Glenbard West High School
My family’s traditional food is fried shredded pork with bamboo shoots from my dad. This is a Taiwanese home-cooked dish, which is made by sautéing garlic, adding shredded bamboo shoots and pork, and seasoning with soy sauce, chili, and bean paste. When I get older, I will want to pass this dish to my daughter or son, because it represents my father’s cooking skills, and I want to pass it on to future generations. Then again, whenever I eat dumplings, I think of my grandmother. Because some families eat dumplings during Chinese New Year in Taiwan to symbolize reunion or make more money, my grandmother would make a lot of dumplings during the Chinese New Year, and I would sit next to her and learn how to make dumplings.
— Tiffany, Taiwan
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