I chose a pair of thin rimmed tortoise shell glasses for the day. With a long afternoon of meetings scheduled on this frigid winter day, I opted for comfort and a studious look instead of my moisture-draining contacts. The wind burn was difficult enough to deal with during my commutes, trotting through the city trying to avoid windblown hair and searching for a travel size Static Guard (for hosiery underneath silk dresses, of course).
I decided a hefty lunch was in order, and a soulful one at that, to keep my spirits up and stomach warmed. As my glasses steamed up over a generous bowl in front of me, and my olfactory system tingled at the familiar and exotic smells that curled in at this mid-town east, hole in the wall lunch spot, I was sure I had made all the right choices today. Squinting through my foggy lens and preparing to slurp down a spoonful of glory, I saw clearly into my past.
I was five years old and my father dropped me off for my very first day of Kindergarten in a public school. Between my emotional meltdown and hysterical sobbing I could not vocalize the panic I felt just, the overpowering fear that I was being discarded and left to fend for myself in a foreign environment. I remember my father trying to comfort me. Then I remember him walking away, looking behind him with a wave that was his attempt to tell me it would all be alright even though inside, in my five-year-old mental state, I was positive my world would never be the same again. I was paralyzed with the terror of it all. I don’t recall what happened immediately after that traumatic morning but clearly, things never were the same again, but everything did turn out alright.
Looking back, the trauma of that morning re-plays itself time and again as I maneuver through life, flipping to new chapters and diving in blindly to greet whatever awaits me in education, profession, family, friendship and romance. It’s the fear of abandonment which seizes me unexpectedly yet continuously. I find that thrilling as it is, the unknown drives my anxiety; from my first days as a kindergarten student to my adult life now. Though I have come to learn that I am afflicted by irrational thoughts, the recognition of this does not help mitigate my fears. I am plagued with the fear that whatever the unknown may bring, be it good or bad, I will be abandoned in that state. If the unknown were to bring joy and wealth, I am afraid I will have no one worthy at my side to share my fortunes with. If the unknown should bring misfortune, I am afraid no one will understand well enough to be my solace.
And just as the unknown drives my anxiety, my irrationality drives me towards my passions, as eccentric as that may seem. I’ve taken absolute pleasure in learning about the staying power of gastronomy as the chemistry between my palate and cultural history blossoms. Whether it be traditional, ethnic fare paying homage to its native regions, fusion, or modernist cuisine, I’ve found comfort in these foods. They've filled voids at any given time in my life with my love for the infinite cultures found in all pockets of the world; how their dishes may taste, what they mean, and what memories they hold for me as each bite is savored with the company of my choice.
By investing my time and affections to the exploration of these culinary treasures, I’ve created countless memories with people close to my heart. This love for food has inspired my travels, and through my travels I’ve come to learn an important lesson: sometimes the farther away from home we travel, the closer we find ourselves to it. In this way, and only in this way, have I eased some of my neuroticism and obsessive thoughts of abandonment.
It is ironic that now, as adults, my biggest fears have come true; some of us have moved hundreds of miles away from home, immediate family and close friends separated by time zones, personal differences, and lack of nurturing. This past Christmas, at one of the first family meals we’ve held in decades, family members, formerly estranged or not, flew in from the Midwest, southwest and drove in from the northeast tri-state area to where it all began: our childhood homes on Long Island.
As I set foot into my Aunt’s home in Wantagh, a sense of sadness washed over me that I tried to quell with the happiness of seeing familiar faces. It would have been impossible for a guest to tell how large of an extended family we boasted with the distance that settled between us all, the hurtful words of the past wedging between us, in space and otherwise. While making the rounds with the requisite holiday hugs and kisses, obligation gave way to longing and regret for the time that elapsed.
To my right, I noticed an awkward conversation began and slowly accelerated with some passionate words. Apprehensive, my curiosity led me into what turned out to be a serious debate between an Uncle from Boston and an Uncle from Eastern Long Island over which restaurant in New York still held the title for the best Chinese Beef Noodle Soup; the favorite, traditional Asian noodle dish of my father, my oldest uncle, my third oldest aunt and myself.
Contenders for the most succulently braised beef soaked in brilliantly spiced stews coupled with the most creative edible accoutrements were as follows: Evergreen Shanghai, Grand Sichuan and Joe’s Shanghai in Manhattan, NY; Sunway Café in Flushing, NY; Liang’s in Forest Hills, NY. With that, family members who hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in almost a decade carried on jovially, exchanging updated recipes,which led to reminiscing on celebrations of birthdays, graduations, and times we had celebrated without needing a reason.
It seems that no matter how far away from home we travel, no matter where we settle into new homes of our own, we can always find solace and the proximity of family and friends within a rich stew laden with noodles, abundant in chunks of tender, marinated beef, happily co-existing in their community of scallions, chili peppers and cabbage. This is food for thought. This is soul food. We are what we eat and when we fill ourselves with richness and camaraderie, there is no more room for fear of abandonment. At least, not in my heart or stomach. Home is in what the heart cooks.