In the summer of 1992 and on the brink of me turning the proud double digits of 10-years-old, I lived with my aunt and cousins. Before I lived with my aunt, I ate the same food: chicken and broccoli, my Dad’s famous spare ribs with meat so tender that they fell in glistening clumps on my plate, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti with tomato sauce, and fluffy white rice. I thought I was Italian before I realized that I was Chinese-American. My taste buds were in a cocooned comfort and familiar zone. It was my form of control. It was my comfort food. Before I lived with my aunt, I did not know how to use chopsticks and the artful and purposeful way each rice grain was shoveled into our hungry and watering mouths. Most of all, before I lived with my aunt, I did not know about my birthmark.
My aunt’s wide almond-shaped eyes shrunk in size in a steely and squinty stare at my mouth. This is it- I must have a zit. Bring on the teenage years. Instead, she said to me: “Did you know that you have a birthmark on the corner bottom right side of your lip?”
I shook my head.
“Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head again.
“That means that you like to eat. I have the same birthmark in the same place as you. We both like to eat. You are hungry. I will feed you.”
She was right. We both had the same birthmark in the very same location. I never even noticed this birthmark. She had to be making this up to try to get me to eat other foods and try other flavors that I had never tried before. I made my way to a mirror. I was stunned. I was shocked. There was the birthmark. I knew that my aunt was trying to find some sort of commonality and comfort in this foreign home and with this foreign family that I had never really known. It worked. And, it was time to eat.
Anyone who knows me even on the surface level knows that I love food. I am a foodie. I live to eat. I do not eat to live. My eyes light up when I talk about food. My cheeks warm in a rosy red and my smile turns into a glossy lipped grin from oily foods that I happily munch on when I eat. I pat my belly when I am hungry AND when I am too full. My mind is often on overload, but the thoughts that brings me my greatest joy are planning my next meal, going to the supermarket, and figuring out which sweet treat I will bake next to give to the people I care for and love the most. Growing up, I dreamed of getting a job as a food tester. My father told me that I would make a great food tester, but that the biggest downfall is I would also have to taste the icky and unpleasant along with the tasty and yummy. I did not care if it tasted gross. At least I would taste it. At least I would try it. If you never try in your life, then how will you know? More than that, one of my rule of thumbs in life is that you have to try at least 2-3 times. The first time will open your eyes. The second time will make you think and feel. The third time has the greatest potential for you to savor and maybe even just begin to understand the impact on you.
That summer that I spent with my aunt and cousins, I ate foods that I never ate before. I discovered more about myself that I never knew before. I am always discovering. Above all else, until I met my aunt, I realized that I had spent nearly 10 years of my life starved. Well, starved might be too extreme of a word. Let us use the word deprived. I spent nearly 10 years of my life depriving myself of flavors and foods out of fear of trying and out of a control for comfort. Now, I tend to eat like I have been starved. I eat too fast. I literally inhale food. I forget to chew. Those things called teeth?? Yeah, I forget about them! I do not savor the flavors as much as I should and could. I am at this point in my life of trying more than ever to be mindful of slowing down and savoring, but that and me are always the work in progress. My FOMO (fear of missing out) clashes greatly with SS (slow savor).
In recent years, my love for food has only grown in leaps and bounds. In the process of this ongoing love affair, I discovered this word “umami.” In Japanese, “umami” means ‘savory.’ My father told me that the Chinese say that there are these flavors that we will all taste and experience throughout our lives: sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. These are all flavors that we will taste in life, but how often do we savor them? How often do we slow down to really taste? And, how hungry are all of us? Tell you the truth, I am hungry. Hungry for life. Hungry for living. A hunger that I purposefully and intentionally fill with selective people in my life and activities that beckon my full participation and engagement in life. A hunger that makes me sense a deepness in my belly in the magic, miracles, and makings all around us in the simple ways. A hunger that is fulfilled in unexpected and unplanned ways that contradicts and challenges the meticulous military Mary planner in me. I never want to lose my sense of hunger. I hope you never lose yours.
My aunt was right all along with that birthmark. I like to eat. She fed me. Yes, I am hungry. Life feeds me in more ways than I could possibly imagine. An overabundance. Umami all around. When have you experienced umami? With whom have you experience umami? Are you being fed? Are you hungry?
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,