An Ode to Food (for It Feeds My Soul)

I remember my first sips of wine, not because they were so memorably delectable but because they were taken with such pride and given with such love. In houses filled with laughter, loud conversations and pots of pasta to serve more than the several families in the room, wine glasses were filled to the brim, always red, smiling lips and teeth tinted with satisfaction of the soulful kind. I was five, I think, maybe six, when my dad offered to dip my bread (Italian, of course) in his glass. “For me?” I sheepishly pondered as I excitedly bit down on a morsel of dough-meets-Malbec. I was delighted.

Before you go judging, you should know that across South America and Europe, it’s not uncommon for kids to take sips of their parents’ wine, which is always accompanied with seemingly endless charcuterie boards and plenty of carbs. The presence of wine is a warm accompaniment to the ambiance, an instrument for hosting and greeting and toasting.

Saturdays were largely spent outdoors, with the adults grilling somewhere, while us kids played futbol or hide-and-seek, then chased each other with water balloons. Grilling began three hours prior to the actual meal, since the men of the family – led by my dad – had to meticulously prepare the fire, just right, always perfect, the end-meal always a celebration, complete with a round of applause and some chimichurri and homemade fries and salad and a glass of Malbec. On really lucky days, my uncle Quintino would cut up some of his homemade sopresata and pour glasses of his grappa for everyone. Cheers to that! Sundays were devoted (devoted) to pasta. As my aunts and grandma prepared the gnocchi on the long kitchen table, flour fell to the floor, like snow (I imagined, having never seen it). If we behaved, we’d have the honors of marking the gnocchi with a fork before they were dropped into boiling water. I was usually good enough to get the honors.  Then, we ate – in the company of at least a dozen cousins, aunts, uncles and neighbors, all of whom stayed over for the mandatory futbol match and siesta, then proceeded to ask for dessert as though they could possibly still be hungry. Flan/dulce de leche/helado/membrillo/tiramisu it was. Sundays were idyllic, really. Throughout the week, afterschool, Mami waited for us with a hot oven, always baking something sweet for “la merienda” (afternoon snack), lemon pound cake, medialunas, pepitas, facturas, alfajores… How sweet those moments were. Her specialties – milanesas, empanadas, tartas and ensalada rusa – were always a staple, and we took for granted being able to request them on a whim. How I wish I had taken my time with them (“Chew each bite 15 times,” she’d say); why did I hurry up those meals? How much I’d be willing to pay for them now…

When we moved to the States, my parents attempted with such pride and gusto to keep some of those traditions going – sips of wine for the children aside – and I never realized just how much preserving those moments would end up preserving such a huge part of myself.

Gatherings here were different, despite my parents’ efforts, but they gave us so much comfort, so much warmth and so much acceptance during a period of time that could’ve felt so lonely and so foreign – and likely did for my mom, who left her dear Buenos Aires at 46 with nothing but our teeny hands in hers and a dream that our future would one day be far better and far more joyful than hers.

Perhaps they knew then what they were doing, maintaining traditions, keeping our culture and our family present and alive, filling our bellies with the flavors of our being, granting us a sense of self in the most delicious way. But I had no idea. We never do, do we? When we’re kids? We take so much of our life for granted, everything happening as it always has. Why would we ever imagine it any other way?

It wasn’t until very recently that I realized just how special my upbringing was, how incredibly lucky I was to experience food and culture in that way, to associate so many of my fondest memories with herbs, flour, dough, sweets, wines, grills, meats, recipes passed down generation to generation… what a huge part of my being they have come to be – sometimes unnoticeably so, but always so present, always just a whiff of pasta sauce or Spanish tortilla away from being dug up from the crevices of my mind and coming up in the form of a smile, red-stained lips and teeth and all.

I feel so very full.