Food and Family: Setting the Table


December is always a time of reflection and retrospection; for me, that often means reality gets jammed up in (sometimes cruelly) juxtaposed angles against my expectations. These are the longest, darkest days of winter for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, and as the weather pushes me indoors, I brood and drink tea by the gallon. This ruminating is amplified by the countless year-end lists that I cannot help but click on. This is true each December, but this year feels more true—2019, the end of a decade. Hours of mindless scrolling accompanied by hot beverages are a sharp contrast to (or perhaps the result of my attempts to decompress from) the rush of the holidays and end of the semester.

Growing up, I hated winter break because it meant traveling to the Detroit suburbs for the semi-annual visit to half my extended family. This was both pre-WiFi and pre-TSA restrictions so while there was very little for me to do, I’d pack a giant suitcase filled with books. Though, in theory, two weeks with no internet and a pile of novels sounds like a writer’s retreat, it was less than ideal in practice. My holidays looked nothing like the Hallmark versions touted in popular culture. Today, my favorite memories from that house are of my grandmother’s canned cherries. They were dark, plump, and sweet. When I inevitably finished the books I’d brought with me, I’d poke around in her dim basement that was lined with my dad’s old paperbacks and mysterious mason jars filled with various preserved fruits (and blueberry moonshine, if I remember correctly)—imagine an eleven-year-old reading Moonraker under a milk glass lamp while spooning canned cherries into her mouth. When it came time for us to return home, my grandmother would press jars of fruits into our hands, more than we could reasonably carry. It was a kind of love.

Flash forward almost twenty years, and my desires have taken a far tilt from the stereotypical ‘90s Americana of my childhood. Even so, I’m still not completely free of the angst that comes from reality not matching up to my expectations. Today, on the brink of a new decade, my friends often joke that my life looks like a sitcom. In January 2019, I lived in a high-ceilinged apartment with my six-foot-three, blue-eyed fiancée and his fluffy dog/horse. Now, at the year’s end, I’m renting a room in an absurdly large house along with four bachelor engineers in their mid-twenties. Though it seems from the outside like my life might be moving backward, once a week, my roommates and I all squeeze around a tiny table to eat the most delicious meals—carbonara, glazed salmon, smoked chicken—before disappearing back into our various corners of the house. This is to say, I am happier now than I was for many months in that gorgeous apartment with my fiancée.

I’ve been recently paying more attention to my needs after scrupulously ignoring them for thirty years. Part of this is related to food and another part is about whom I choose to spend my time with. Parsing the difference between what I want, what I think I want, and what’s good for me, is a slow process. To hunger is to need. Food is a difficult subject because it is a physical necessity that also becomes an identity marker. What do you choose to nourish (or not nourish) yourself with three times a day? Often, communities are clustered around these choices—be they cultural, socioeconomic, or geographic. Sugar or baking soda to cut the acidity of your spaghetti sauce? Standing at the kitchen counter in your underwear or seated at a table with matching flatware? A generational recipe or a drive-through dinner?

Earlier this year, I explicitly asked my family if we could spend some time together in January instead of around the typical holidays. Something different? Maybe we could meet in New Orleans? They happily agreed. And so, while all of my roommates will travel south to see their respective parents, I’ll have the house to myself. It still won’t be the Hallmark holidays I once hoped for, but it’ll be what I’m looking for now. I’ll string lights around the living room and order takeout sushi and play very loud music. I’m beyond excited about this. I’m paying attention to my hunger, to my whole self’s needs. And after I spend time alone, I’ll spend a week with some of my favorite people eating beignets. I wish you a similarly satisfying end of this year and beginning of the next, whatever that may look like for you.

This month, The Rumpus examines the ways that food brings people together. We’ll share essays about trying to feed friends our grandmother’s pig skin recipe, customer service at a froyo shop, breastfeeding, Quaker potlucks, and more. All gratitude to my coeditor Eve Ettinger for her wisdom and insights as we curated this theme month. We hope you will follow along throughout December and share these pieces on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #foodandfamily2019.


Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.

Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn is the Editor-in-Chief of The Rumpus and currently lives in the DC area. Her debut essay collection, A Fish Growing Lungs, was published by Burrow Press in June 2020 and was a finalist for the Believer Award. You can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther. More from this author →