I have strong feelings about food. I can talk extensively about how white chocolate is a lie and blueberry bagels are an abomination. I am not shy about my strong opinions on desserts. And yet, when it comes to anything social, I’m the least assertive person you’ll ever meet.
I once had a 45-minute text conversation with a guy I was casually seeing about why blueberry bagels are the most goyish baked good. I also had to explain to him what the word “goyish” means (it’s a playfully, somewhat derogatory way of saying something isn’t Jewish). He and I never had a real conversation about our relationship, but I did tell him how I felt about bagels.
I get this behavior from my family. We don’t talk about our feelings. Sometimes we scream them, but only after we’ve bottled up the real issues.
Instead, we talk about food. My aunts discuss which recipes they’ve been making lately before they update each other on what they’re children have been up to. My mom updates me on her tomato plants when I’m thousands of miles away. It’s not fair, I tell her, because I can’t see the tomatoes.
Would I prefer that my family communication style had prepared me to initiate real conversations? Maybe. Yes. But expressing my opinions on food is a form of intimacy that I’m more comfortable with.
If you didn’t already gather from my earlier use of the word “goyish,” I’m Jewish. At least culturally. My parents never made me go to Hebrew school or have a Bat Mitzvah, but I did grow up eating lox and bagels at my aunts’ houses every Sunday.
For every holiday when we were kids, my mom and aunts would bake an enormous loaf of challah, but save a small chunk of dough so that my cousins and I could braid our own miniature loaves.
These days, my mom rarely eats sweets, but she still makes them for me when I come visit. If I come home for the first time in months and she doesn’t have time to make a cake, she apologizes profusely. “I didn’t have time to make you a cake,” she says. She’s pouting, as if the way she expresses love through food is a maternal obligation.
Cooking is an act of intimacy, but it’s not an act of intimacy that’s based on being vulnerable. My family wouldn’t dare talk about anxiety or depression at the dinner table, but when we talk about the food we aren’t just sharing nourishment. We’re expressing love.
That said, I often wish we would talk about our mental ailments at the dinner table. I sometimes wonder if my lack of assertiveness in my social life comes from the fact that my family doesn’t communicate about ourselves. We communicate about the things we like — not just food, but also our opinions on books and movies and art — but aren’t vulnerable to our own emotions.
Maybe one day I’ll learn to initiate conversations about my emotions. Maybe the next time I start casually seeing someone, I can be direct about needs. Until then, just know that when I tell you how strongly I feel that everything needs to be dark chocolate, I’m sharing part of myself in the only way I know how.