The melting pot: How my housemates & I bonded over food

Six women, six cultures, one kitchen, and a pandemic

Sasha explains that her house came together around home-cooked meals.
Credit: 
Sasha Cohen

When my five housemates and I met in October of our first year at Queen’s, all that connected us was a mutual friend, Amy. We were six young women thrown together, each from different religious backgrounds and ethnicities, all planning to live under the same roof.

The thing that bridged our differences and quickly brought us together? Food.

My family is Jewish, Anjali’s is Indian, Connie’s is Chinese, Olivia’s is Portuguese, Keanna’s is Persian, and Amy’s is Dutch. Our house is truly a melting pot of cultures, flavours, and incredible dinners.

Over the past few years, I’ve become infatuated with food. I love cooking and baking, and I especially love being able to share my creations with other people. I’m a very adventurous eater and willing to try almost anything.

During one house dinner, I remember Olivia asking me: “What made you like cooking so much?” I explained that it’s because food has a unique way of bringing people together.

It made everyone think a little harder about the significance of gathering around our kitchen table.

***

When I first discovered my passion for cooking, I celebrated my desire to expand my culinary repertoire by watching food-related videos on YouTube, spending hours reading recipes on The New York Times cooking website, and becoming familiar with food writers like Melissa Clark and Priya Krishna.

In second year, I used cooking as a way to release stress and inspire relaxation. Luckily for my housemates, this meant they were often surprised with blondies and apple crumbles during those weeks crammed with late-night studying and seemingly impossible deadlines. 

I read recently that cooking, preparing, and even eating food can be therapeutic. It engages your senses in a unique way, making you think back to a special time in your life or a memory you may have of a particular aroma, the taste of a certain dish.

Beyond surprising my housemates with snacks, food started having a deeper significance for me. I started to understand that, beyond recipes, flavours, and ingredients, food has a special ability to connect people.

Never would this be more important for the six of us than during a pandemic.

***

Back in September, approaching my third year in the middle of a pandemic, I knew the significant amount of time my housemates and I were going to spend at home together was going to impact our relationships. How exactly, I wasn’t sure—but I could never have guessed it would be through a celebration of each of our cultures in the form of the food we grew up eating with our families.

It started with the creation of massive charcuterie boards that covered our coffee table with a decorative presentation of meats, cheeses, fruits, and nuts. They say you eat with your eyes; there’s no doubt that assorted cold meats look better when organized on a charcuterie board.

From there, meal planning became a communal experience. When we first moved in together, we’d carved out parts of the fridges and cupboards to make our own meals and snacks. But living together all day every day, those boundaries began to break down. We started sharing more, becoming exposed to different tastes and flavours in the mysterious contents of Tupperware containers brought from home. 

Sometimes, we would have weekly theme dinners, which could either mean taco Tuesdays or gathering around Anjali’s mom’s Chana masala. One person would take the lead and we would all pitch into the preparation—and the eating, of course.

While Kingston was shut down, the grocery store became my primary source of entertainment. Shopping for food was no longer a chore, it was a field trip. Long strolls through the aisles meant learning about new spices and snacks, far beyond my usual go-to of salt and vinegar potato chips.

Suddenly, chaat, coconut chutney, and the ingredients for the Indian dishes of puri, dosas, and chicken biryanibegan to fill our kitchen. Packages began to arrive with almost every kitchen appliance you could think of; someone’s computer was always propped up somewhere in the kitchen narrating the latest recipe videos. And yes—we made the TikTok pasta, which was really just okay

A decision to make hot pot one night meant a group trip to our local Asian food market. Apparently, you don’t ‘hot pot’ with people you don’t like—or that you’re not quarantining with.

Half the fun of this meal was the food shopping and the preparation. Our kitchen was brimming with napa cabbage, baby bok choy, enoki mushrooms, and the amazing scent of a rich broth as we gathered around Connie’s mothers’ hot pot, indulging in the new flavours.

Other contributions to house meals have included Olivia’s grandmother’s homemade chorizo, pimento, and massa; Keanna’s treats like pickled vegetables from her local Persian grocery store; Connie’s sweet egg twists for Chinese New Year; Amy’s mother’s home-cooked meals. Each of these foods found different ways of bringing us together through small bites of new flavours, sparking conversations about culture and traditional holidays.

My contribution was in the form of a traditional Hanukkah dinner, starting with a call to my mother for her chicken soup recipe.

A great chicken soup is the litmus test of any budding balabustathe Yiddish expression for a homemaker. Several FaceTime calls later—and a scramble to get my hands on kosher chicken that’s nowhere to be found in Kingston—I had assembled my mother’s award-winning flavours, followed by a traditional challah bread and crispy latkes with a side of sour cream and applesauce. I led the lighting of the menorah, a candelabra with eight branches to signify each night of the holiday, before we tucked into the mini-feast.

Then there are times when my house doesn’t have time for anything elaborate. That’s when we turned to the ‘dip dinner,’ where everyone contributed a different dip accompanied by fresh bread and crackers. When you have too much work to do, dips absolutely count as protein.

***

Food has become a metaphor for our survival. We’re fortunate to have enough of it in this time when so many of our peers are facing food insecurity, and it has brought us closer as a group, gathered around to share the flavours and stories of our culture that brought these recipes to the kitchen table. 

It’s also forged greater connections with our families, who were more than delighted to share generational recipes with a new audience. We became used to the sound of the voice of someone’s mother giving helpful instructions to the careful and nuanced preparation of a family dish. Many opted to avoid exact measurements in favour of “a little of this and pinch or two of that.” 

Will our culinary adventures continue to take us through fourth year? Maybe, maybe not. What will continue is our use of food as a communal experience, allowing us to reveal memories of our family traditions and create a deeper understanding of our cultural differences—in the most delicious way possible.

 

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