Saturday evening is the time I usually get to talk to my sister, who lives in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood in the American Midwest. In the middle of our conversation tonight, my nearly-six-year-old nephew comes on the phone to say goodnight, and I send a noisy kiss down the wire. When he’s gone to bed, my sister tells me that on the way home from school yesterday, she asked him how he had liked the lunch she packed for him that day. “It was really good, Mommy,” he said. There was a pause, then he added in a small voice, “But Jeremy (not his real name) said it was gross. He always asks what I have for lunch, and he always says it’s gross.” My sister twisted around in the driver’s seat to see tears rolling down his cheeks.
When told this story, my mother asked, “What did you give him for lunch anyway?”
Just leftovers, my sister told her. Sliced sirloin steak with a balsamic vinegar reduction, and roasted broccoli with pine nuts and parmesan cheese.
“Well, that explains it,” my mom said. “This Jeremy kid is just jealous.”
There is one thing you have to understand about my family. We are Filipinos, which means we enjoy our food more than most people. Two Japanese friends of mine had lunch at Cucina Manila recently. They arrived at one thirty and lingered over their meal for over two hours, pleasantly surprised that the restaurant did not close down for the afternoon lull, because there was none. Even way past lunch-time, there was still a constant flow of customers, they reported to me with some astonishment. I explained to them that for Filipinos, any time is a good time to eat.
Not only do we enjoy our food…for us Filipinos, and especially in my family, cooking a meal, and consuming it with appreciation, is the highest expression of love. This is why the first question you’re asked when you walk in the door of any Filipino household is, “Kumain ka na?” (Have you eaten yet?) This is why my siblings and I were never packed off to school with nothing more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (“That’s not lunch,” my mother would have said in horrified tones.) And this is why my nephew, bless his dear heart, cries when some kid tells him his lunch is gross. Little as he is, he knows that a lot of love goes into the food his mommy prepares for him.
And besides, he genuinely likes his steak and broccoli. To the Filipino, you truly are what you eat. So if you tell us our food is gross, we’ll take that as a personal insult to ourselves and to the person who made the food in the first place.
But let’s be fair. Maybe Jeremy comes from the kind of family that thinks PBJs are a good enough lunch. Maybe my mom is right and Jeremy is jealous. Which means that maybe the best solution to this conflict would be for my nephew to offer him a bite next time. Filipinos do love to share their food after all. And then maybe Jeremy will learn what my nephew seems to know by instinct: that the way to a person’s heart really does pass through the stomach.