In the wellness world, the subject of food is often fraught with speculation and apprehension. But food can also be much more: a form of connection with our loved ones and our ancestors, a way of showing care for ourselves and one another, or even just a source of simple pleasure. Here, Experience Life staffers and regular contributors share some of their favorite food memories.
Every day, I think about potato salad. Even though I can never again have the most perfect, artfully made, secret-recipe potato salad, the yellow bowl my mom used to make it is now on my kitchen counter. She inherited the bowl after her mother died, in the same way that I did.
She made hundreds of batches in that bowl — weddings, family picnics, funerals — and although she tried to teach me all her magic ways, I gave up after she passed, because something was always missing: a flavor I couldn’t quite place. But we know what that was. Still, I hold the memory close, and sometimes, if I lean in, I can almost catch the aroma of the potatoes, freshly cooled, waiting for her steady hands.
— ELIZABETH MILLARD, Experience Life contributing writer
One day last winter, after having our ice skates sharpened at the sporting-goods store down the street, my husband and I stopped at the local bakery. We bought two “state fair” doughnuts (a prized delicacy in my adopted home state of Minnesota) and ate them as we walked home through light flurries of snow.
It was a perfectly ordinary moment — a little treat with my favorite person — and one that would have been entirely out of reach for me just a few short years ago, when my determination to adhere to a “perfect” diet meant always saying no to little treats. My relationship with food has required intentionally developing a peaceful appreciation for these moments: greeting them with enthusiasm, taking them in, and then letting them go. Life’s too short to not include a doughnut every once in a while.
— KAELYN RILEY, Experience Life senior editor
It was just before sunset in Mykonos, Greece, and I’d spent the day zipping around on an ATV with the wind in my hair, touring the island’s beaches. My partner and I found a restaurant nestled near a small cove, with an outdoor patio and a breathtaking seaside view. We were greeted with warm smiles and complimentary wine. While waiting for our table, we swam in the salty Mediterranean. I ordered grilled squid and whole whitefish and devoured every bite, fish brains and all. It was delicious, fresh, and authentically Greek. That evening, I was fully immersed in the energy of Mykonos, with no food rules and no comfort zones in sight.
— MADDIE AUGUSTIN, recipe developer
The day after Christmas, I always travel from Minneapolis to my parents’ house in the Chicago suburbs, so I can (a) outsource the kids’ care to eager grandparents and (b) eat my mother’s food. My parents are from Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, and I grew up eating Indian food that is very different from what you find in most Indian-restaurant buffets: karela (bitter melon in a spicy-sour tamarind sauce), haak (braised collard greens), nadru yakhni (lotus root in a fennel-yogurt sauce), and monj achar (kohlrabi pickles fermented with mustard seeds).
What I most look forward to eating, however, is my mom’s tsir tsot, a Kashmiri breakfast crepe made from a thin batter of rice flour, water, black cumin seeds, and salt, which gets cooked in olive oil until crispy. Alongside, we always have Kashmiri kahwa, a green-leaf tea brewed with cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and sugar, topped with crushed raw almonds.
There are so many elements to this meal that bring me joy — the salty-sweet combination of the crepe and tea, the hit of childhood nostalgia, the fact that someone is cooking for me. But the best part is just having an excuse to sit in the kitchen and talk to my mom.
— ANJULA RAZDAN, Experience Life digital director
“Told you to put your shoes on” is what my father said as I scorched three of my toes. This was his stock reaction to my curiosity when it came to getting the charcoal started for grilling. On this particular day, a coal had found its way through the vent at the bottom. I considered it an initiation, the first time I felt the heat, the fire calling me like a moth to a flame. Though I didn’t know it would at the time, it remains my first food memory: the smoldering coals, the ambient heat, the thrill when the grill is ready.
— RYAN DODGE, executive chef at LifeCafe
My story is about how food saved my life. It’s also a love story — about loving food, loving family, loving friends, and loving myself enough to take an active role in managing my own health. When I was 22, I was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease resulting in life-threatening malabsorption, malnutrition, and anemia. I have experienced a decadelong cycle of diagnosis, disease, remission, setbacks, recovery, and loss, but one thing has held true: Food continues to save me.
I promise you, you can effectively manage your symptoms while still enjoying truly amazing food. Discovering the life-giving world of grain-free, gluten-free, and dairy-free living, and the incredible healing power of food, has been the greatest gift of my lifetime.
— DANIELLE WALKER, self-trained chef and author of three New York Times bestsellers
My 15-year-old returned from the local Asian market, his canvas tote bulging. “They had pomelos!” he exclaimed, unloading four of them. I looked up from my laptop and felt the joy that only unasked-for pomelos can bring.
Pomelos, a fussy cousin of the grapefruit, have a rind that smells a bit like jasmine flowers and a sweet, tart interior with a mixture of standard grapefruit-like segments and little pockets and ellipses of fruit and pith that never quite turned into anything easily eaten. A lot of pastry chefs candy the rind and discard the fruit, so passionately do they want that fragrant exterior. Not me.
The flesh has a thousand flavors, mint and apple blossom, passionfruit and cucumber, and my favorite activity is to sit with one and make a mess on a dishtowel, prying out the good stuff. That was the first joy my son carried home.
The greater joy: I’ve taught my son so many things. To see and care for the people he lives with. To shop the Asian market on his own. He brought home seaweed snacks for his lunch, jelly straws for his sister, red-roast barbecue and broccoli for family dinner. Years ago, we started a family plan: Each kid makes dinner once a month. At first, it was a hassle. Any honest parent will tell you it’s faster to make dinner yourself than to play assistant to someone who thinks it might be more fun to stand at a distance and throw each strand of spaghetti into the boiling water like a javelin.
Over time, though, they each gained competence, confidence, and speed. These days, my daughter will text me her ingredient list for three-day ragu, and my son has half a dozen dishes he makes without glancing at a recipe, bopping around the kitchen to lo-fi hip-hop.
What more does a parent of a teen want than to know they can feed themselves, care for themselves, and care for those around them? The pomelos are just the cherry on top of this day-to-day-home-cooking sundae — sweet, fragrant, and much appreciated.
— DARA MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL, James Beard Award–winning food critic and Experience Life contributing writer
During the pandemic, when everyone suddenly had to cook at home even when they didn’t want to, I was working on recipes for my new cookbook, Nom Nom Paleo: Let’s Go! I wanted to offer super-simple things like sauces and flavor boosters that could help people make joyful dishes with relative ease — but I also wanted to include more complex recipes that reminded me of my childhood, especially while we weren’t able to see my parents.
It was my husband’s idea for me to create a version of dan tat, or Hong Kong egg tarts. They’re the most popular Cantonese dessert in the world, a kind of mash-up of English custard tarts and Portuguese pastéis de nata — so of course I had to create a paleo version!
At the time when I was developing the recipe, no one was vaccinated yet, but I knew I needed my parents to sign off on my egg tarts. I left a few test batches on their doorstep for them to sample. My whole life, food has always been my parents’ primary love language — so when they told me my tarts were “not bad for a paleo dessert,” I knew I was on to something.
— MICHELLE TAM, food blogger and best-selling coauthor of Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans and the upcoming book Nom Nom Paleo: Let’s Go!
The great majority of my best moments have involved food, which is not surprising, given that whenever there’s celebration, grief, or just deep connection with other people, food is almost always involved. Most recently, though, I had a meal on the patio at the little restaurant down the block from our home. My husband and I treasure its presence, since it has generally meant we’re less than 100 steps from a martini on any given evening, but the pandemic shook their foundations just as it did all of ours. We committed to weekly takeout as soon as they offered it, and our first pickup felt like an illegal heist — meet us in the back of the building; the burgers will be in a bag on the card table. Still, our favorite server stood back from us there, her hearty laugh bellowing from behind her mask, somehow making all the weirdness feel OK.
About 10 months later, two weeks to the day after my second vaccine, we walked up to the host stand to be escorted to our patio table. That was the first time I cried that night. The second was when the waiter brought me a glass of unfiltered prosecco, which I’d never had before, and which tasted like some combination of starshine, vinegar, and a stiff ocean breeze. The third was when I took my first bite of the pasta course, with its sauce of “ramps ramps and more ramps.” And the last tears fell into the unlikely rhubarb barbecue sauce that covered the trout fillet on my plate, which was indescribably good. That defiance of description means that bliss will remain a private experience between me and that trout forever.
This is part of why I love eating food in a little restaurant, because at its best, this food can be a gift from strangers who are not strangers, who have poured their art into something practical and then shared it with you, just for showing up. I’m so relieved and happy to be able to accept that gift again.
— COURTNEY HELGOE, Experience Life features editor
This article originally appeared as “Eating Joyfully” in the December 2021 issue of Experience Life.