How our memories of food tell us who we are

How our memories of food tell us who we are
  • PublishedMay 4, 2024

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is not one to sugarcoat the past.

Take vanilla, for example — that heady, aromatic stem taking you back to sickly sweet children’s birthday cake or that scented lotion you had as a teen. But Nezhukumatathil writes about baking with her young son, creating vanilla extract with vodka to give as gifts, carefully scraping the seeds out of their pod with the dull side of a knife. The essay — one of 40 in her new book, “Bite by Bite” — isn’t just about her son, or vanilla. It’s also about Edmond Albios, an enslaved boy who discovered a new way to pollinate the vanilla orchids in a way that changed the vanilla industry. Vanilla is the vehicle through which her parallels are drawn.

"Bite by Bite" will be released April 30.

“Bite by Bite” will be released April 30. Ecco

“Bite by Bite,” out on April 30, is poet Nezhukumatathil’s seventh book. It’s her second of prose, following the success of 2020’s “World of Wonders.” And, most notably, it’s her love letter to food. Each chapter of “Bite by Bite” focuses on a food — everything from apples to butter to the Filipino dessert halo-halo.

But these chapters, these essays, are not recited histories of ingredients or dishes. Instead, Nezhukumatathil weaves a personal memoir through food. In the chapter “Tomato,” she writes about her mother and grandmother — juxtaposing the path of the tomato from Spain to the Philippines and from Portugal to India with her own ancestry. “Lychee” is an ode to her Asian American writer community in New York. “Shave Ice” eulogizes female friendship.

“I wanted to celebrate how delicious a full life could be,” Nezhukumatathil told CNN in a recent interview.

But, like with vanilla, that deliciousness doesn’t always mean sweet. There are sad tales here, too, dark histories underlying warm memories. Nezhukumatathil doesn’t waver. Food can be a map toward home, toward memory, toward lineage, her book argues. And with it, she beckons us to explore.

CNN’s conversation with Nezhukumatathil has been edited for length and clarity.

So much of your writing brings the delights and oddities of nature to the forefront, but what made you turn your microscope to food specifically?

The majority of it (the book) was written in 2021, so although I did start a few essays before the pandemic, most of it was after the pandemic.

I think after a time of being so separate, and having leaders who want to divide us so much, I wanted to focus on what nourishes us and also what can bring us back together. And for me, that was food.

One of the things I missed so much, I think so many people did, is being able to sit with our families, our loved ones around the table. There’s so many books that are the search for home.

This is a search for what kinds of homes we can make with food. There’s chosen family, there’s family, and there’s our birth family, and all of our friends and everything in between. Our crushes and our exes, and all of that. But food is one big connector, so I really wanted to focus in on that.

Yeah, this topic gets talked about a lot — how food can hold memory or be a cultural tie. But you talk about the origins of food — not just food as a connector between me and somebody else, but foods’ own history, like, the etymology of cinnamon or the origins of the Concord grape. How did you go about researching and thinking about food in that way?

The simple answer is I’m just a giant nerd. So many of these things I actually modeled from my parents. Since I was a little kid, I would always watch them asking questions of the grocery store or the different markets we were at — farmers markets and things like that. I would watch how they garden. They also had vast knowledges of mangoes, of course, for both of their countries, India and the Philippines. So they always modeled the sense of curiosity for me.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, poet and author of "Bite by Bite."

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, poet and author of “Bite by Bite.” Articulate Photography by Tenola Plaxico

It wasn’t like I sit down and say, ‘I will research the origin of sugar,’ but rather I cannot eat sugarcane without what little I was taught about the horrors of the sugarcane trade as a global history. We have a little Christmas Eve tradition in my family about sugar cane. I couldn’t write about that and ignore the not so great origin stories of some of these ingredients and vegetables and fruits and meals.

What I wanted was to make you slow down and think about what are the stories that connect, and I think that learning that way of thinking about your own life becomes contagious. Like hey, I thought I knew apples but did you know this or did you make this connection, and maybe my story of eating a gyro sandwich might make you think of a time when you missed one of your parents or guardians, things like that. My hope is that curiosity becomes contagious for you as well.

You mention eating a gyro sandwich. While I was reading, I had expected natural ingredients. We’re going to talk about fruit, we’re going to talk about vegetables. I was really surprised at some of the inclusions of lumpia and gyros and risotto and flan and all of these other things that you also talk about. What made you incorporate those elements alongside the more raw ingredients?

It’s so funny that you mentioned that, because that was a source of much distress for me. When I was thinking about it, and just looking at my home library, my local library, at bookstores — almost every food book is like, here’s a book on desserts. Here’s a book of vegetables, or here’s snacks. Here’s a book all on chocolate. I didn’t want to write anything first of all that was like anything else that was on the bookshelf.

The Table of Contents came about because I was thinking of instances in my life when I felt connected to people, and so I was thinking of scenes first and food second in some ways. Because I wanted to have that overall. I wanted to start and end this book with love.

I was thinking of scenes first and food second … I wanted to start and end this book with love.

It was more of like, the feeling and the scenes were important to me, and then I had to go back and say like, ‘Okay, what fruit encompasses this?’ ‘What food encompasses this feeling?’ What was going on in the scene that made me feel so welcome, or not welcome, you know? Or uncomfortable, a little bit. I was really concerned about the emotion and location of what was going on rather than, I have to make a nice, neat, orderly Table of Contents of all sweet things, or all vegetables and just vegetables. I didn’t want it to be like a memoir in vegetables. So although I’m sure that book exists somewhere, it just wasn’t for me, you know?

Right. But you also highlight some of the darker origins of some of these ingredients, like, in the “Vanilla” chapter, the enslaved child discovering how to pollinate vanilla orchids. Was that something you always intended to do?

I read a lot for this book. And I definitely, in the back, included all the books that I was looking at. I did not know that I really was going to be writing about vanilla and my son, and it was absolute coincidence that I came across like oh the person that made vanilla what it is, was a young boy too.

These thin fingers of vanilla beans are the subject of one chapter in "Bite by Bite," which contextualizes the history of the spice and meditates on boyhood.

These thin fingers of vanilla beans are the subject of one chapter in “Bite by Bite,” which contextualizes the history of the spice and meditates on boyhood. Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

I really wanted to kind of celebrate, again what nourishes us, what brings us together. And part of that is facing some not-so-great moments of the past as well. I just wanted to be as honest as possible. And yet I didn’t want to linger on that kind of past I wanted to, again, have each essay begin and end with a note of love.

Is there anything about your own relationship with a certain food that you didn’t think about before that you discovered while you were writing?

I wanted to collect a gathering of essays that showcase different facets of being who I am on the cusp of 50. I wanted to celebrate childhood. I wanted to celebrate the exuberance and the exhilaration of meeting my girlfriends downtown in New York City when I was single, and happy. I also didn’t want it to be like, oh, a man rescued me.

Yet, there’s also been kind of a lot of books about how terrible some men are in marriage, and also like, kids are encroaching on me being an artist. That’s definitely some people’s experiences for sure. And I don’t want to negate that. But for this book, I wanted to showcase in particular for women of color, there are other ways of making it through. You do not need to have a dramatic fight. You do not need to have a jerk of a husband. You can actually like spending time with your kids and like spending time with your husband and also really enjoy your chosen family as well. You know what I mean?

There’s different food books that showcase, ‘Look at me finding myself’ or ‘look at me now that I have a family.’ Or, like ‘I’m a mom,’ ‘look at me now that I’m newly divorced.’ I wanted to celebrate all of it.

Yeah, there’s that trope of diaspora poetry and the trauma in that — not to say those things are not valid, but in your work you almost invite the reader into your world and into your family in a way you don’t see, particularly in writing. 

We are not the perfect family, I make plenty of mistakes and mess up a lot. But what it comes down to is that I like spending time with my family. I truly do and, and I also love spending time teaching. You don’t have to choose one or the other.

We are not the perfect family, I make plenty of mistakes and mess up a lot. But what it comes down to is that I like spending time with my family.

Sometimes I am kind of a hot mess, and other times, it’s like, Hey, we’re gonna do takeout because mama has a deadline or dad has a deadline. But I think it’s also really important for people to see possibility. To see, hey, there’s another narrative out there of how to live rather than kind of these tired tropes that we see like, ‘I’m desperately embarrassed of my food, but now, I’m not’ you know, it’s just a work in progress.

You include some writing food prompts at the end of the book. What spurred you to do that?

One thing that occurred during really all of my books, but in particular with the last one ‘World of Wonders,’ is that so many people — and I don’t know if it’s because it was released during the pandemic or what — but so many people let their guard down and were a little bit more vulnerable with me in book signing lines, in zoos, in just straight up email and letters to me, saying how much they wanted to get back to writing. Or they used to write, but they didn’t know where to begin, they don’t have time.

I just recently taught a class in San Antonio where there were two young mothers and I could hear the kind of the pain and nervousness in their voice, I get choked up thinking about it, saying like, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore. I used to be so creative, and I don’t know what to do. But your book makes me want to do something,’ you know, that kind of thing.

And so I just I wanted to help all those hundreds and hundreds of people who have asked me like, I don’t know where to begin to write. So I designed these over 20 years of teaching at the college level and elementary school level, and grad students and senior citizens in high school. I compiled a selection of writing prompts to get — hopefully at least one of them, but hopefully all of them — your imagination going and get you to slow down and contemplate your life and your relationship to food.

You don’t have to publish them. You can but you can just write in a journal and nobody needs to see it. But there is a way to help those folks who wanted a place to start and it seems overwhelming. And I’m here to say it’s not; to start small with these prompts.


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