I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately and its meaning for myself. Last week my aunt passed away. She fought a valiant battle against pancreatic cancer for the past two years. My mom and I just came back from her funeral in Jersey this past weekend. It was a good service and it had been way to long since I saw my dad’s side of the family. It was really good to see family.
Auntie Tannie was my dad’s older sister, she was an amazing cook and a gourmand, a foodie before the term existed. I’ve got many fond memories of delicious meals prepared by my aunt. The last meal I had at her place, she cooked me two whole Maine lobsters… 8 years ago. It was a very memorable and tasty meal. I also remember the summers when we would visit, she would always buy us some Jersey sweet corn, it was the juiciest, sweetest, tastiest corn ever. But there’s more to my memories of my aunt then just eating really good food. She, like my dad, was able to talk to anyone—at times a bit loud, and possibly a bit scary—but at the end of day, like my dad, she had a great big heart full of love. It just so happened that she showed her love thru cooking.
I also just finished reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked. In the last couple of paragraphs of the book he writes about going to Korea and learning how to make kimchi and learning the difference between tasting with your tongue and tasting with your hands. It’s a profound paragraph that I deeply resonated with:
Tongue taste is the straightforward chemical phenomenon that takes place whenever molecules make contact with taste buds, something that happens with any food as a matter of course. Tongue taste is the kind of easy, accessible flavor that any food scientist or manufacturer can reliably produce in order to make food appealing. “McDonald’s has tongue taste,” Hyeon Hee explained.
Hand taste, however, involves something greater than mere flavor. It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it—the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that that person has put into the work of preparing it. Hand taste cannot be faked, Hyeon Hee insisted, and hand taste is the reason we go to all this trouble, massaging the individual leaves of each cabbage and then folding them and packing them in the urn just so. What hand taste is, I understood all at once, is the taste of love.
This was what my aunt did, and it’s why I cook as well. Feeding people was how she expressed love, and she loved well. It’s easy to see now how after all these years that these things have translated to the way I approach food as well. Food has been such an integral part of how I make sense of the world, it runs deep in both sides of my family.
After staring at pixels all day at work, using my hands and feeling the food that I’m making centers and recharges me. Even if it’s on a busy weeknight, rushed for time, the desire to create something (even if it is temporal) energizes me because the memories and community produced by the act of cooking are what make it special. At the end of the day, cooking allows me to keep on loving, building, and making.
I hope to keep on tasting with my hands.