I'm standing at the breakfast buffet line at a Louisville, Kentucky Hilton. I'm torn between a bagel or scrambled eggs. A relative passes me by choosing both despite her plate already being piled high with bacon, breakfast sausage, and a yogurt on the side. I suck in.
Another relative passes, “They'll make you an omelette, you know.” She keeps going in pursuit of some rumored Belgian waffles. My dad passes by with two plates, each full. My kid runs by, “If I eat two bites, can I be done?” My husband starts eating bacon directly from the buffet. I consider getting him a chair. My mom walks by, “Tonight we have a choice between steak and talapia. That's a fish. It's very good.” She joins my husband in direct-from-the-buffet bacon sampling. My uncle walks by and asks what time is lunch. My cousin walks by and asks where we are having lunch. I suck in again and choose fruit.
This is a typical family vacation.
There are a lot of things my family doesn't talk about. Food is not one of them. To say I come from a family of food-o-philes would be an understatement. To say we like our food would be a mere simplification. Anytime we are together, lengthy discussions ensue about where to go to dinner tomorrow night, while we are having lunch, today. We can talk endlessly about the latest diet craze while dreaming of surgical procedures that make losing ten pounds a mere outpatient procedure. We discuss which relatives have put on a few while mentioning which relatives have lost a few, with one person unable to resist jabbing with, “I think she looks too thin.” As if that's an insult.
We talk about a restaurant we want to go to while we're at a restaurant we wanted to go to. We “will only have a little” meaning we just ate half an hour ago, but if you're bringing something in, we'll have a bite. We know the names of famous chefs and can recite their bios on end. We remember major life cycle events by what we were eating when they happened, and judge the success of any party, wedding, or event by how good the food was. We can talk to each other endlessly about food—we just can't talk to each other endlessly about each other.
I'm thirty years old. My dad is on the phone. A man of few words, the phone is not his forte. The in-person silences become deafening on the phone. After a few seconds of dead air, he clears his throat and says, “How's the weather down there?” I live in LA, where everything is always sunny and fine, so asking about the weather leads to an answer about as interesting as the city's climate. “Fine,” I say. “80 degrees and sunny.” We sit in silence for a minute more before finding a reason to hang up. I spend the next hour wondering why we didn't talk about anything “real.” My recent heartbreak. My oft unemployed cousin, again out of a job. My mom's illness.
Now, years passed, I'm standing at a Kentucky breakfast buffet. My dad walks by again, his two plates in hand. “Where you sitting?” he asks. I point to a table where my son and sisters are sitting. He goes and sits down, sharing his piled high plates with my son, whose now well past his threatened “only two bites.” Later, my son says to me, “I miss my Grandpa.” He'll say that every day until he sees his Grandpa again.
My days of talking about the weather with family have progressed into talking about food. We can have multiple conversations about food while we're eating food that we just talked about. We're like conversation clowns—able to juggle ten conversations about food at any one given time.
My dad turned eighty this week, and I know my meals with him are limited. Maybe we've got twenty years left or maybe we've got two, but our meals are numbered. We won't be together forever. Over the years, we've spent many visits together talking about food. We've enjoyed decadent meals at LA hot spot Mozza, and I've received hand-delivered dim sum from San Francisco's Ton Chiang. We've tested our palettes with spicy Thai at Jitlada and never missed a chance to have the onion soup at Balthazar, New York. We can endlessly debate why Mandarette makes the only decent Chinese food in LA while driving to the best Indian food in Northern California. My dad and mom sent me to the best restaurant in Istanbul while telling me what to avoid in Marakesh.
As a young adult, I used to have endless debates with my Conservative father about politics. Now we have endless debates about the merits of sushi. The criticism I used to feel directed at me is now directed at the “used to be good” hotspot in San Francisco. I've never laughed harder than sitting at a brand new farm-to-table Los Angeles restaurant, listening to my father discuss a distant cousin's sexuality. So if food is on our conversation menu, I'm happy to talk about it. Sometimes it's okay to avoid the elephant in the middle of the room in favor of the burger directly in front of you. Someday my parents won't be here, and I'll relish the time we had to wait an hour and a half for our table, or the memory of the first steak I had after twenty years of vegetarianism. And someday, I'll pray that my kids want to dine with me and share themselves, one meal at a time.
Here's some topics my family likes to food about. What does your family like to talk about?
Ten Conversations about Food:
1) Sushi—delicious delicacy or overpriced food poisoning?
2) Cutting out carbs doesn't have to mean all carbs.
3) Here's why the Dukan Diet is the best, from someone who said the same thing about Oprah's Liquid Protein diet, the South Beach Diet, The Zone, Atkins, liposuction, and any other diet book on sale at Costco.
4) If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? (Pizza #1 with french fries tailing a close second.)
5) If I ate the same things my kid eats, I'd be 400 pounds.
6) I wish my kid would share his fries.
7) What's the dress code for dinner?
8) Italian? Ugh, I had pasta for breakfast.
9) Who's paying?
10) I'm hungry. When did you say dinner was?
- In addition to stealing my husband's money, I also stole this title. Ten Conversations About Food was his idea. The title and the idea behind are his. The execution is mine. He went to college with dreams of becoming a playwright, and then changed his major to “Something Lucrative.” Should he ever go back to UPenn and want to write a play with this title, he's welcome to have it back. His money, well that's another story.