Growing up in a Singaporean Chinese family, for me food is almost the primary means of communication between family members, both immediate and extended…hey, it beats discussing which cousin did better at end of semester exams, or who’s getting married next, right?
This Lunar New Year past, I happened to miss the customary reunion dinner held on the eve, where symbolic foods are shared to prothesis a fortunate New Year; noodles for longevity, dumplings for wealth, fish for prosperity. Somehow, despite not being a particularly dutiful child (still childless and not a lawyer), it felt sad not to be sharing in the usual festivities with family. It was an emotional response that surprised me; that like many other adults, while independence has been hard fought and won, it often comes at the cost of losing a bond with community or family. In these increasingly self-focused times, emotional connection through food remains perhaps more than ever, the vital glue that holds us together or helps us reconnect with something we lost.
“I could honestly talk to you for hours about this,” says Lisa Goldberg, co-author of the internationally successful Monday Morning Cooking Club series of books, which celebrates the global Jewish community in the form of shared recipes and food traditions. “I’m not very religious, but I am very Jewish in a cultural sense. When we celebrate the holidays, it fills me with emotion to know that everywhere in the world at the same time, we’re experiencing the same thing at that moment and are connected to each other as a people.”
It’s not just the religious calendar that allows for people to feel that connectedness, however. Marilyn Annecchini, co-owner of Italian restaurant Pilu says “Our yearly family tradition of making bottled tomato sauce, or passata, began around 45 years ago. Initially as a young child waking up before dawn to help, along with our huge family, wasn’t something I looked forward to but it was non-negotiable. My grandparents grew the tomatoes, aunties, uncles and cousins all had jobs, from washing tomatoes to building the fire for the large drum that held the filled bottles. […] It wasn’t until I had a family of my own though, that I really understood the importance of this tradition and now I look forward to it every year. My 95-year-old grandmother is still actively involved and it remains a wonderful day which reunites all the generations of our family.” she adds.
The symbolism of certain foods trip the nostalgic wire in all of us, whether the context is cultural heritage or geographic location. “I grew up on a farm on the coast near Port Macquarie in New South Wales”, says Melbourne restaurateur Hannah Green of Etta Dining. “Our food rituals as a family growing up involved eating oysters, plucked and shucked straight out of their hessian sacks, and gorging on loads of local school prawns, sold by local fishermen out of the back of their truck. We’d boil them in seawater and dad would fashion some kind of sauce from mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce or whatever else he felt like. Even now over Christmas, I organise more oysters than anyone would think sane, and we always get through them. Breakfast on summer holidays often involves cooking bacon on the BBQ, then throwing oysters on until their shells pop.”
Goldberg adds, “To me, Friday night dinner is a huge part of what it means to be Jewish. Every Friday, everyone gathers around the table and we reconnect over food. It’s a non-negotiable tradition in most families, and it certainly is in ours.” Lisa notes that especially for new migrants to the community, this cultural tradition is especially important as a way of establishing themselves in a new place, a foundation for building new traditions through celebrating old ones. The story of finding connection over food when you’re new in town is a universal one, whether you’re moving out of home for the first time or having an orphan’s Christmas, food seems to say what can’t be said in words, transcend barriers to communication and provide a means for us to share something meaningful.
As for next year’s Chinese New Year, Melbourne Chef Jerry Mai of Vietnamese eateries Pho Nom and Annam says, “My son Harrison was just born and I want him to have strong memories of being surrounded by family and friends over the Lunar New Year. To have the house full of people, eating together and celebrating the New Year in abundance is something I had as a child and I want to pass that on. You should come!” she adds. It’s a done deal, Jerry.
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