Thoughts on loss
Food as a love language
This month has been a difficult one for me what with experiencing losses to various degrees, including the acknowledgment of the impossibility of a situation wherein I cannot see my mom. (The latter being a consequence of my almost-70-year-old dad refusing to get vaccinated, and my mom, who is vaccinated, not wanting to risk him getting sick by letting me visit.)
What became very apparent in the last week-and-a-half is that the human body can only contain so much stress. And all this emotional pain that I’ve been carrying manifested itself as a physical one by way of an excruciating back spasm. During this time of immobility, I’ve been considering how two passings have left their everlasting imprints on me—food as a love language.
I didn’t know Justin died six months ago. I found out he passed when I was about to text him three weeks ago and thought to Google something on the off chance that there was a congratulations in order. Instead, I found his obituary.
Most of my memories of Justin surface when I’m out with company and I see a dish, drink, or restaurant that I eagerly espouse and share with them. And in those moments, I mentally (and sometimes literally) chuckle. His enthusiasm for food and drink wasn’t limited to the simple narrative of telling me about “this one time”. Rather, he immersed me in the stories, sharing with me these plates and cocktails that he so keenly described, all the while patiently waiting to see if my eyes would light up with a similar brightness as his did.
It was probably our second date when we went to the now-closed Miranda in Williamsburg. He professed himself not to be a salad person but insisted that we order this particular one on the menu, which had slices of fresh mango amongst leafy greens. Up until that point, I never thought of fruits in salads as a plausible combination—I mean, I was twenty-three, so what did I know? Anyway, I’m not sure if this part is a projection of my memory or if it actually happened, but I’d like to think that he was keenly awaiting my viewpoint of the sweet-meets-savoury pairing when the salad was served. What I do clearly remember, though, is both his relief and excitement that I liked the mangos, parmesan, and greens as much as he did.
And sometimes, his eagerness backfired comically, but he’d take it in stride, such as when we were at Traif a few years ago. When the cocktails arrived at our table, he took a sip that was immediately followed by a coughing fit. He took a large swig of water, and meekly remarked at how spicy the drink was. I took a sip from his glass and looked at him with bewilderment, to which he replied: “I can’t handle any level of spice, but the ingredients sounded good together, so I wanted to try it!” We promptly swapped my cocktail with his and I joked that I could never be with someone that couldn’t handle chilies.
I first met my Gong Gong (maternal grandfather) and Poh Poh (maternal grandmother) when I was twenty-one, visiting Hong Kong for the first time. The forum where we convened then and in future years was always at a restaurant. Gong Gong was always so talkative, asking me questions about myself, despite the language barrier that existed between us.
For context, I was raised in a household where my parents were adamant that I only speak one of Canada’s official languages. Cantonese, their first language, was something that my parents reserved for each other; it wasn’t a secret language, but rather, one of convenience when they didn’t have to converse with me about anything. Growing up at home, I passively absorbed an understanding of conversational Cantonese; however, anything from my own mouth was limited to a vocabulary associated with mahjong and ordering food. (We can see where my priorities lay.)
What Gong Gong could figure out without need for a family member acting as translator was what I enjoyed eating. He’d see my eyes dart toward favourite dishes, such as braised sea cucumbers, pomelo skins, and shiitake mushrooms, and push the plates closer to me. Whenever I’d visit, he’d recite back to me what I enjoyed feasting on last time and ask if I would like the same lineup. After I gave the yay or nay, he’d always go a little rogue and add something new to the mix, based on what he had seen me take a liking to. And I think he was pretty spot-on with all his selections—they’d sometimes also make it into the rotation for next time.
Perhaps most memorable, though, was how he taught me how to properly hold my chopsticks when we first met. For the first half of that meal, he didn’t say anything about how clumsily I picked up morsels of food; he only watched.
At some point, while waiting for more dishes to come out, he pointed at my chopsticks with his own and said the Cantonese word for the utensil, “fi zhee”. He then took hold of my right hand with his, repositioning my fingers one by one so that I would hold the sticks correctly. When my fingers were in the right places, he pulled his his retreated and picked up his set of chopsticks, and then mimicked the motion of grabbing food. It took a few tries and adjustments, but eventually I got it. The patience he had was matched by the pride he had in seeing me grab at everything with more precision and speed.
Where Justin could bashfully express his enthusiasm in words while at the same time sharing plates and drinks with me, Gong Gong took a more subdued approach. My grandpa would watch me in my own space, as if putting together the pieces of how I came into my own and how I formed certain habits and tastes. And only after observing me and feeling comfortable in this idea of me did he add his own personal touch to my life.
Food as a love language
There is an aspect of vulnerability in sharing what one appreciates in food and drink. Consider the intimate nature of sharing someone’s favourite dishes or beverages—you are physically ingesting and incorporating someone else’s expressed fondness for something. And when someone enjoys the experience as much as you had that very first time you imbibed, feelings of excitement and pride feel considerably validated.
Similarly, on the rare occasions that I cook for others, what I choose to make is my way of sharing the experiences that were formative in my childhood and young adulthood. And the stories that I am able to tell to accompany each dish I’ve made—from the poutine that we would eat during middle school; to the Orthodox Easter feast in Greece that we stumbled upon; to the shellfish boils that a friend would take take me to when visiting him in Baltimore—are ways for me to communicate what I’ve loved and still hold close.
Thank you to both Justin and Gong Gong for showing these parts of themselves, providing that boundless enthusiasm that I now carry and share, and for leaving me with memories that make me smile when I encounter them, such as floral beers (Justin) and perfectly trimmed bok choy (Gong Gong).