American food ain’t it
Last year, my best friend suggested I start keeping a spreadsheet of how many tacos I ate throughout the year. People I meet for the first time quickly discover that I prefer to eat tacos (or any Mexican food, for that matter) every chance I get, so the number of tacos I eat adds up quickly. I’m a picky eater, but tacos are the only exception. i am a taco connoisseur not just because I’m Mexican, but because I can proudly say I’d eat almost anything as long as it’s wrapped in a tortilla.
I’ve been at UC Berkeley for over a month now, and as silly as it sounds, I don’t think I was prepared for how much Mexican food I was going to miss.
Can someone get homesick from food? I don’t know about homesickness, but I’m sure I’m feeling sentimental. Of all the things I could miss in Mexico, I miss its cuisine the most.
Over the past month, I’ve come to realize that American food isn’t that. I think this feeling is mainly caused by the uncertainty of canteen food. Meal plans at UC Berkeley are like a constant game of Russian roulette: on good days, dining room food is nice, and on other days, it’s better not to eat at all. Anyone who has ever been to Café 3 understands the experience.
On my second day here, most of the Mexican exchange students for my year and I gathered for dinner at La Mission on University Avenue. If anyone had seen us from afar that day, it would have looked like we had been without Mexican food for months—when in fact, we had only been there a little over 48 hours. It didn’t take long for us to become Raleigh’s most trusted customers every Taco Tuesday.
I think the nostalgia for food is a collective thing. Food has a knack for bringing me back to certain points in time, whether buñuelos to remind me of Christmas or pan de muerto to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
The paternal side of the family hails from a small town in northern Veracruz where all kinds of shellfish overflow the dining table due to the town’s proximity to the ocean. My dad’s childhood home smells like a mix of leftover morning coffee and seafood or antojito is cooking in the oven.
Parallels can be drawn between my family’s coping mechanisms and the Portokalos family’s problem-solving strategies in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”: Food is essential to my family’s dynamics and maintenance Peace. Just like the Portokalos, everything on my father’s side of the family is settled by food, whether it’s the slightest disagreement (dating back to when I mentioned abortion rights) or a major explosion (like the time I talked about how I wanted to pursue ballet professionally). Each time, whether she agrees with me or not, my grandmother takes matters into her own hands and manages to bring us all to the table over a good homemade meal.
At my grandparents’ house, there is a constant overflow of food, even though we are not a big family. When we gather, there are no more than 10 people in the house. However, I am certain that the normal amount of food my grandmother cooks could provide double. Proof of this are the three refrigerators full of food in the kitchen and living room.
I once asked my father why the overabundance of food found in his home was so common – but the answer was simple. Growing up without food security, the way my grandfather cared about us was to make sure you could find whatever you wanted in his kitchen. Basically, her love language was the gift of food. Food, for my grandfather, was a source of uncertainty, but also of security, history and love.
I often think of him. I wonder what he would think of me eating Kraft macaroni and cheese in the middle of the night in my dorm. He was criticizing all Mexican restaurants in the US for not being “really Mexican” and was probably trying to mail me something my grandmother made (as if that was a feasible option).
I really miss Mexican food, but I miss it even more.
In Mexico, food plays a special role in how our collective culture is preserved; the kitchen is a vehicle through which oral histories and family history are passed down from generation to generation. Much to my grandmother’s dismay, my lack of culinary abilities will hamper how our ancestral family recipes are made in the future.
After my first two weeks at UC Berkeley, I had to satisfy my craving for Mexican food. I’ve tried some of Berkeley’s Mexican restaurants, and as good as some of them were, none of them left my craving (although Tacos Sinaloa has the most authentic tacos I’ve found here) .
Trying Mexican food turned out to be a counterproductive activity. This made me miss home food even more. It also reminded me of my family and their cuisine, which is the closest I have to a religious faith.
Marina Román writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the Opinion Bureau at [email protected]or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.