As a teen, I had a hard time with my parents. Nothing catastrophic (well, it felt catastrophic at the time, of course), but there was this deep divide between me, the American teenager, and them, the Korean parents. They didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them. It was complicated, like it is for a lot of teens, especially children of immigrants.
The one thing we could agree on, though, was food. Mealtime was a ceasefire of sorts. Even if I was fighting with one or both of my parents, I would reluctantly join them in grocery shopping. Join them for every dinner at our kitchen table. And no matter how mad they were at me, my parents would make sure I was well fed, always. Food was often a peace offering. Once, after a rare punishment from my dad, he came into my room with a platter of sliced apples. It was his way of saying sorry. And my eating the apples was my way of accepting that apology.
Maybe it wasn’t the most functional form of communication, but it worked. And in The Way You Make Me Feel, food is at the heart of the relationship between Clara, the main character, and her dad, Adrian. He shows his love with food—making her a Masala chai every morning, having a pot of soup on the stove for her even when they’re not speaking. And throughout the book, food is what brings people together. Clara becomes friends with her enemy, Rose, by working on her dad’s food truck with her. Her first date with the cute boy named Hamlet involves homemade Chinese food and Taiwanese shaved ice. On a later date, she introduces him to all the best tacos found on the Eastside.
Is food a good substitute for actually talking about feelings? Probably not. But it’s a step in that direction, and maybe a placeholder for when more direct communication can be difficult. For when words aren’t possible, when the people you love most feel far away. So you all gather around the table to take part in a ritual from forever ago, to nourish everyone who needs it.