Food: The Great Connector

I didn’t meet Aanya until I walked into the cafeteria for snack time after my third soccer session of the day. She was eight years old (but tall enough to look twelve), wore round glasses, and had her hair tied in a low, messy bun. She was sitting at a table with Mahi, my closest co-counselor, talking excitedly. Aanya looked at me, then my name tag — which said “YBBA” obviously, since it was Backwards Day — and says “Hi YBBA!!” This was a sports camp and I had spent all day teaching campers how to do the Maradona, but the topic on the table right now was food. 

“Do you like Idli?” Aanya asked Mahi.

“Yes!” she responded.

“Hmmm…what about Dosa??”

“Yeah!”

“Okra with Tamarind?”

“Chili Paneer?”

The conversation they were having consisted of Aanya asking Mahi if she liked a specific Indian dish, getting an answer (usually positive), and then brainstorming for five seconds about another one, and on and on. I was immediately invested in the conversation not only because it was fun to watch Aanya’s eyes light up, but because I had a feeling I could learn a lot about a cuisine I knew way too little about. 

“Do you like Gulab Jamun???”

“Of course,” Mahi said.

I had a lot of questions. 

I jumped in. “What is Gulab Jamun?” Aanya described it as “a dessert, sort of like fried dough balls that are in a sweet syrup, sometimes rose flavored.” This sounded amazing to me, especially as I chewed the stale off-brand animal crackers that were always handed out for afternoon snack time. Another camper sitting at our table, named Meabh, inspired by our conversation, started talking about the foods she eats at home and in Ireland. 

The conversation continued through dismissal. At that point, I had a long list going on my notes app, where I was writing down just about everything they said. I learned about Mango Lassi (a creamy mango drink), something Aanya’s mom made for her at home all the time, and that sounded better than anything in the world to me at that moment standing on a turf field in ninety-four degree heat. Mahi even gave me the name of her favorite Indian restaurant, where I could try the best versions of all these foods. It was five minutes from her house, and she said she’d been going there for years. Naturally, my family went a week later. When the waiter came over, I read our order straight from my notes.

I also learned that Mahi and Aanya were vegetarians, so of course, the next day, I brought both of them copies of the best vegetarian cookbook (not biased) ever published: The Weekday Vegetarians. I watched Aanya pull the book out of her drawstring bag (day camp essential) and flip through the pages with her mom in her car, trying to show her as much as possible from the backseat as she drove away. I had a such a warm feeling about our little exchange –- she was different than most campers, who show up Monday and leave Friday, never to be heard from again. Talking about food with her made me lose track of time, which, as a day camp counselor, can be a rare and wonderful thing. For the rest of the week, our conversations wandered all over the place, but food was the thing we always came back to. She would ask me what my mom made for dinner the night before or about my Chipotle order and I would ask about hers. My job at camp was to teach soccer, but also to connect – and with Aanya, food was the best way to do that. 

Aanya’s not the only person I’ve bonded with over food. I went out to lunch a few months ago with a friend from college who I was trying to get closer to, and I asked her kind of out of nowhere: “What would be your ideal breakfast, lunch and dinner to have in one perfect day?” (My answer, if you’re curious, was a good pastry with some in-season summer fruit and an iced vanilla latte for breakfast, sushi for lunch, and some long, eggy noodle with Bolognese for dinner – soup dumplings were a close second). We debated our answers to this question for hours, both of our maple lattes drained.

After reading that, didn’t you just have an instinct to tell me about your day of ideal meals? I know you did, and, obviously, would love to hear about it.

Enjoying my first (but definitely not my last) Gulab Jamun.

P.S. Reminder: All the fun stuff these days happens in the Dinner: A Love Story newsletter on Substack, which is consistently in the Top 10 most-read food newsletters on the entire platform. You can subscribe here.

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6 Comments

Rachel

Oh, Abby, this is so fun. For breakfast: pancakes at a diner or biscuits and gravy. For lunch: wonton soup and scallion pancakes (this was my favorite lunch at college). And for dinner – chicken, kielbasa, peppers and pineapple on the grill in a honey/soy/mustard marinade that my dad always makes.

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Patti Dean

Another fun thought game is if you could have breakfast in one country, lunch in another and dinner in a third – what would they be and why?

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Holly Rabalais

Love this! The last couple of weeks have had a running thread–connection. It started with my thinking about how connection helps one stay sober (my young adult son is currently learning to do that), but then it morphed into more articles and conversations that tie into this theme. I’m already crafting a post now, and you can be sure I’ll include a link to this one. Food–the great connector!

My ideal meals: For breakfast I’d order up my grandmother’s cathead biscuits served open-faced with butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon. For lunch, I’d have a spinach salad with strawberries, feta, mushrooms, bell peppers, bacon crumbles (notice a theme here?), and toasted pecans topped with chicken cooked with balsamic vinegar, all tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette. Butter Chicken (I know! I know! It’s not sexy, but does anyone remember what we learned from Ratatouille?!) and fresh naan from my favorite Indian restaurant for dinner.

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Jodi Levine

I love this, Abby!! So sweet. And so true. (And thanks for sharing the restaurant link, I can’t wait to try!)

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Pam

Oh man! I love questions like this!

Breakfast – an omelet with bacon, mushroom, spinach, tomatoes, and shredded cheddar cheese, with a side of sourdough toast smeared in salted butter and strawberry jam

Lunch – a turkey club piled high with turkey, bacon, and gouda cheese and bowl of clam chowder

Dinner – my mom’s chicken and dumplings AND her Thanksgiving stuffing, sauteed green beans, and her pineapple upside down cake

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Sangeetha

I love this post so much, espceially the connection with the Indian food :).
My ideal breakfast would be dosa or idly with sambar and chutney (I hated eating these growing up in India but such a treat these days!), a roasted vegetable pannini for lunch and probably roti and any “sabzi” for dinner.

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