American food isn’t it

Cal in Color

Photo of Marina Román Cantú

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Last year, my best friend suggested I start keeping a spreadsheet of how many tacos I ate throughout the year. People I meet for the first time quickly discover that I’d rather eat tacos (or any Mexican food, for that matter) any opportunity that I get, so the number of tacos I eat adds up quickly. I’m a picky eater, but tacos are the only exception.I’m a taco connoisseur not just because I’m Mexican, but because I can proudly say that I’d eat almost everything as long as it’s wrapped in a tortilla. 

I’ve been at UC Berkeley for more than a month now, and as silly as it sounds, I don’t think I was prepared for how much I was going to miss Mexican food. 

Can someone be homesick because of food? I don’t know about homesickness, but I surely do feel sentimental. Out of all of the things I could miss about Mexico, I miss its cuisine the most. 

Over the last month, I’ve realized that American food isn’t it. I think this feeling is mainly provoked by the uncertainty of dining halls’ food. Meal plans at UC Berkeley are like a constant game of Russian roulette: On a good day, dining hall food is enjoyable, and on other days, you’d be better off not eating at all. Anyone who has ever been to Café 3 understands the experience. 

On my second day here, most of the Mexican exchange students in my year and I banded together to have dinner at La Mission on University Avenue. That day, if someone had seen us from afar, it would have appeared as if we’d been deprived of Mexican food for months — when, in reality, we had only been here for a little more than 48 hours. It didn’t take us too long to become Raleigh’s most reliable customers every taco Tuesday. 

I think nostalgia over food is a collective thing. Food has a way of bringing me back to certain moments in time, whether it is buñuelos to remind me of Christmas or pan de muerto to celebrate the Day of the Dead. 

My dad’s side of the family is from a small town in the north of Veracruz where all kinds of shellfish overflow the dining table due to the city’s proximity to the ocean. My dad’s childhood home smells of a mixture of the remains of morning coffee and whatever seafood or antojito is being cooked in the oven. 

One can draw parallels between my family’s coping mechanisms and the Portokalos family’s problem-solving strategies in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”: Food is essential to my family’s dynamic and its peacekeeping. Just like the Portokalos, everything on my dad’s side of the family is fixed through food, whether it’s the slightest disagreement (cue to the time I mentioned abortion rights) or a major outburst (such as the time I talked about how I wanted to pursue ballet professionally). Every time — whether or not she agrees with me — my grandma takes matters into her own hands and manages to bring us all to the dinner table through a good home-cooked meal.

At my grandparents’ house, there is a constant overflow of food, even though we are not a big family. When we gather together, there are no more than 10 people in the house. However, I’m certain that the normal amount of food my grandma cooks could feed two times that. Proof of this are the three fridges stocked full of food in the kitchen and living room. 

I once asked my dad about why overabundance of food found at his house was so common — but the answer was simple. Growing up without food security, my grandfather’s way of caring about us was making sure you could find everything you craved in his kitchen. Basically, his love language was food-gifting. Food, for my grandfather, was a source of uncertainty, but also of safety, history and love. 

I think about him often. I wonder what he’d think of me eating Kraft macaroni and cheese in the middle of the night in my dorm room. He would bash all Mexican restaurants in the United States for not being “truly Mexican” and probably try to send me something my grandma cooked through the mail (as if it were a feasible option). 

I truly miss Mexican food, but I miss him even more. 

In Mexico, food plays a special role in how our collective culture is preserved; cooking is a vehicle through which oral stories and family history are passed down through generations. Much to my grandmother’s dismay, my lack of cooking abilities will hinder how our ancestral family recipes will be carried out in the future. 

After my first two weeks at UC Berkeley, I had to fulfill my Mexican food craving. I’ve tried some of Berkeley’s Mexican restaurants, and as good as some of them were, none of them ceased my yearning (although Tacos Sinaloa has the most authentic tacos I’ve found here). 

Trying out Mexican food turned out to be a counterproductive activity. It made me miss food from home even more. It also reminded me of my family and its cooking, which is the closest thing I have to a religious faith.

Marina Román writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected], or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.