I am the daughter of a restaurant owner and a daughter who never really learned how to cook. I grew up with the green and white tiles of our Italian restaurant, weaving in and out of the kitchen as they cranked out cheese pizzas and crab cakes. My mother never liked cooking; she saw it as a chore, one that was only a necessity to survive and provide for the family. It wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic did I realize how important cooking was to culture.
On the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table, there was a story that caught my eye: the Thai chef Bo Songvisava. In Thailand, she fights to revive an interest towards traditional Thai food. As commercialization and capitalism picks up, she discusses how in Thailand, instead of making their own curry paste, there is now only one company distributing curry paste to buy. This curry paste is processed, nothing like the traditional methods passed from generation to generation. She wanted to fight that, to return to traditional methods of making Thai food.
After watching this, I started thinking more about the role of food in our lives. My father was never around growing up; he was always working. His only day off was Sunday, where he spent it cooking traditional Iranian food from his province. He would wake up at 7 am and prepare all of the fresh ingredients, making broth and sauces completely from scratch. When I prepared meals, I used canned beans. When he cooked, he soaked fresh beans in water overnight.
My father almost died at the beginning of the pandemic. He had gotten COVID from the restaurant. No one in my family knows how to cook Iranian food, and when he was in the hospital, I remember wishing for his cooking. If he died, our family’s recipes, our heritage of food, died with him. When I moved to New York City, where there were few Iranian restaurants, and none of them prepared food that tasted like my father’s. When I craved Iranian food, I was actually craving the taste of home.
I started teaching myself how to cook after that. I still don’t know the traditional recipes, but I often make my food from scratch like my father does. Going to the grocery store, I see what Songvisava was saying in Chef’s Table. While it is okay to enjoy something like instant ramen, where is the history and lineage in that, in processed food? The food we brought to the table originally was something we were passed down from our ancestors and distinctly marked where we were from; by adding eggplant in gheimeh, I can trace my ancestry to northwestern Iran.
Cooking is a spiritual act, one of devotion and mindfulness. In American society, we have pandered to this commercialized ideal that we must hustle, and we do not have time to give to the act of creation, of cooking. We are forgetting that cooking in itself is both a love language and an art form. During the pandemic, people turned to it as an economic solution; if the restaurants aren’t open, what else are they going to eat? If they cannot afford to eat out anymore, what are they supposed to do? But, at the end of the day, we’ve failed to realize that this is a physical manifestation of our love and ancestors, and is something we must continue to keep these legacies alive.