Slow down and take a 'flavor trip'

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player

Remember how bags of flour and sacks of sugar started flying off grocery store shelves shortly after the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown? Faced with isolation and worried about the future, it seemed like all of America had the same impulse: get into the kitchen. Including aware-winning poet and essayist Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

“Everybody and their mother had a sourdough starter! And we were all posting pictures of our loaves of bread online. It was a way of finding connection, wherever we were in the world,” Nezhukumatathil said in a conversation with “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.”

Nezhukumatathil spent the pandemic at her home in Oxford, Mississippi, with her husband and kids. Her parents were quarantined in Florida and her extended family —grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins — were even farther away, in India and the Philippines. Isolated and lonely, Nezhukumatathil found herself obsessively remembering the tastes and smells of her childhood: leche flan and chicken curry; crispy, crackly lumpia; shaved coconut and home-grown mangoes and jackfruit.

“I started writing this book during the pandemic,” Nezhukumatathil said, “because I really missed eating with groups of people — with my extended family and my friends.”

Food memories are famously emotion-laden. “Bite by Bite,” the book she wrote during those pandemic years, is a memoir in taste that is lyrical, joyous, yet honest about the past and what it took for her immigrant parents to wrap their children in love and care and nourishment.

“I want to celebrate with you how my family and friends gather and what we remember,” she said, “and also share my curiosity about where food comes from and how it makes us feel connected to a landscape that hasn’t always loved us back.” 

The following was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Anne Strainchamps: Your father’s from India and your mother’s from the Philippines, and it seems like both cuisines had a big impact on you growing up? 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: What a lucky upbringing, right? I love both cuisines, and the fact that from such a young age, I could have lumpia and curries without ever having to leave the house, just seems like magic. And there was so much love and care wrapped up in that, because we were a nuclear family. 

My parents arrived in the U.S. alone. They met in Chicago and they had each other, but there wasn’t a big extended family with grandparents and aunties around to help. So they made sure we grew up knowing the food from both of their countries, but I know how hard that was. And it kind of breaks my heart a little bit to think of these two immigrants from such hot, tropical countries trying, in the middle of a blizzard, to make the food that they remember for their American children. 

AS: And not just cooking foods from home, but gardening and growing food, too?  

AN: Absolutely. It was almost considered wasteful not to. Like, you have a yard and you’re not doing something with it? You’re not helping, not growing fruits and vegetables that you can share with your neighbors? 

AS: You write that their garden is their love language, and that they have a long-running squabble over whose country’s mangoes are best — India’s or the Philippines’. How different do they taste? 

AN: You know, even I didn’t fully fully understand how many varieties of mangoes there are, but the flavors can vary a lot. Like there are some with a hint almost of cherry, some are so thready with fibers they’re kind of a pain in the behind to eat. Others are so soft the flesh practically falls off your spoon as you scoop it up. And there are all different levels of tartness and sweetness. 

AS: Growing up with home-grown mangoes and home-made lumpia and curries seems absolutely wonderful and enviable. But there’s a story you tell at the very beginning of the book about being in grad school and writing a poem about mangoes. It reminded me that America used to be a lot more close-minded about food and culture.

AN: Oh boy, that’s exhibit A of how far we’ve come with food discourse and how we treat difference in anything. The gist of it is that I took graduate courses in creative writing, and I remember this one class when we spent the entire hour debating whether or not I should put the word mango, which I used in a poem, in italics or add a footnote, because it might be too “foreign” or “exotic” for American readers. 

AS: A mango?

AN: I know, exactly! Even growing up in Chicago or Iowa, my parents were always able to find mangoes — it did not seem exotic or weird or bizarre. It was weird and bizarre that other people did not have mangoes. But I couldn’t say that in a class full of white folks who were all telling me how foreign and strange this fruit was.

AS: I mean, it’s funny now, but it sounds painful. I guess that’s a sign of how much things have changed. 

AN: Yeah, recalling it now, I’m absolutely laughing and smiling. But at the time it was like, wow, can I get some commentary on the actual content of the poem?  Because this is… unhelpful.

So you’re right, it has changed a lot. I mean, the number of Indian restaurants in any major city has, I think, quadrupled since the 1970s, for sure. People are flocking to restaurants that serve all kinds of food and I don’t have to worry that anyone’s going to make fun of my kids for what they eat at home.

“I think there’s definitely something about the sharing of food and food moments with each other that makes us feel not so alone.”

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

AS: “Bite by Bite” is your second book of essays. Your first, “World of Wonders,” was about natural history — fireflies, whale sharks, vampire squid. But it seems to me that this book is also very much about wonder — in this case, the wonder of exploring the world with our mouths and tongues. How do you think wonder and taste contribute to our sense of what it means to be alive in this world? 

AN: Oh, I love that question. I guess the way to tackle it is by remembering that memory is so tied up with smells, and therefore also tied up with taste, more than any other sense biologically. The place in our brains that processes memory is also, coincidentally, the same place that processes smell. And so I think there’s something about smell and food that brings us together — because we want to share our memories: “Oh, that reminds me of my grandmother. That reminds me of my first kiss. That reminds me of a not-great date.”

So I think there’s definitely something about the sharing of food and food moments with each other that makes us feel not so alone. 

AS: That’s interesting because I think wonder is all about expansiveness. It makes the present moment feel bigger. For instance, I can take a container of raspberries out of my refrigerator and for a second or two, the scent can transport me back to my grandparents’ berry patch in Springfield, Missouri, to a memory of picking berries straight into my morning cereal bowl and tasting the warmth of the sun. Nothing I can buy in the store or that comes in plastic is ever really going to taste like that, but I can get just a little hit of it, you know? And for that moment, I can be in two places at once and the world is magically bigger.

AN: Absolutely. And because you shared that story, even though I’m here in a hotel room in Minnesota, suddenly I’m in that field with you, and I can almost taste the sun-ripened berry on my tongue. 

That’s what I love about food writing, what I love about sharing food stories. No matter where you are, if you are descriptive enough and specific enough, you can bring along a friend for the whole journey and never lose them. You establish this trust and it becomes reciprocal and interactive. It’s not me lecturing you as a professor; it’s me taking your hand or nudging you and saying, “Come with me. Come with me.”