I envy people who don’t like dining hall food because it means they must have grown up eating really good food. Dining hall food is delicious, but it will never be the same as whatever your mom, dad, grandparent, or other caretaker makes especially for you. And yet, out of all the love I have for my home, I’ve never felt nostalgic for a home-cooked meal. If we’re being perfectly honest, my family kinda cooks like shit. You always hear about how food is a person’s true connection to their home, culture, and family—but what if your parents aren’t very good cooks, and your grandparents live in Florida?
This week, I had a delicious impromptu meal at Ferris: yellow rice, black beans, and plantains with hot sauce. I had unconsciously made something I was already used to making for myself at home, and it reminded me of how I gravitate towards things resembling Hispanic food. I found this a little sad. Is appreciating a little bowl of rice at a private college’s dining hall all I have to show for my so-called Colombian roots?
Even though being Colombian is a part of my family’s identity, my house isn’t exactly filled with the smell of chicken, rice, and slow-simmering beans. In fact, my family never even eats dinner together at the same table, and after my siblings and I were old enough, we learned how to cobble things together ourselves for meals. My mom’s signature dishes were hot dogs, plain rice, and ground beef with chili powder.
Taking friends to Colombian restaurants is tough, and so is meeting other Colombians. I can speak the language of Colombian food, but I can’t make it myself, nor can anyone in my house. The trip to the Colombian bakery is only that—a trip. A temporary visit, but not my home. My concept of “authentic” food feels like something I have memorized to show people what my parents say I am, but not what I have come to recognize through my personal experience at home and growing up.
The dining halls carry all the food that I miss from my so-so Hispanic upbringing—dry beans and rice, tostones and maduros, occasionally fried cheese. But I’m still a little ashamed that I don’t have a more critical opinion of the food, because I feel like I should know more about what “real” Colombian or Hispanic food tastes like.
A big complaint at Columbia is the authenticity of certain types of food, as our dining halls advertise different international food options to us on the daily. Dominican Independence Day always completely slaps in John Jay, but I hear people fuss about how the tostones aren’t crunchy or how the beans aren’t flavored right. People don’t like how showy and over-the-top the food is, or the loud decor and music.
I think the reason I like dining hall international days and international food representation at the buffet is because it silently calls out what I feel is most fun about it: the performativity of it all. It always felt like indulging in certain public aspects of my identity (especially what I choose to put in my body) was a little bit of a performance—something to be seen by others, so I can try to understand myself. And that’s unfortunate, but I also think that the narrative of true authentic food being made by a humble little abuelita slaving away in the kitchen making tamales from the spices grown in her backyard feels like something built to sell Americans hot chocolate, rather than represent the truth of our diverse cooking habits.
I think the campy-ness of something like A Taste of Italy in John Jay Dining Hall is just another version of presenting authenticity: It’s loud, it’s mostly fusion, it’s made with the resources we have available to us, not the ones we think we need to have. Dare I say, it’s fun—and that feels more real to me than anything.
The concept of “authenticity” has become somewhat of a seal of approval to represent a group. We go searching for “authentic” versions of food, dress, crafts, and celebrations on vacation because people want to feel closer to a community. But we also carefully vet each other for these signs of authenticity to determine our viability as a member of said community, rather than acknowledging difference. I brought myself a lot of shame trying to live up to a standard of “Hispanic-ness” growing up—a standard that I don’t think actually exists. Just because we don’t eat buñuelos with every meal doesn’t mean that we’re losing contact with our roots, or that I have any less right to enjoy my family in the way they are: bad cooks.
The love of food that reminds me of home exists in me just like it does for everyone else, and how I express that love can take any form, including throwing together a quick and yummy meal in lieu of the lines at Ferris.
I give Ferris black beans, yellow rice, and maduros with hot sauce a 9.5/10.
Emma Gometz is a junior in CC studying evolutionary biology. Her abuelita is an excellent cook, but too nice to scold Emma on her crap cooking. If you’re mixed and don’t know how to deal, give her a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org. Food, Fear, and Filth runs alternate Thursdays.
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