“What do you cook?”

In late 2016, I decided to take a career break. Though I loved the people I worked with, something wasn’t quite jiving. I wanted to take some time to figure it all out.

During this time, I did some volunteer work to speak with women who were taking classes to improve their English skills. The instructor gave us worksheets as a guide, but said the group could elect to “just talk” if they wanted. Not to be stifled by worksheets, our group chose to just talk.

I typically have no problem shooting the breeze with people I barely know, but this was different. In addition to the language barrier, the women I spoke to led a completely different life than I do, even though we were all in our late twenties. They came from large families and had many siblings – I have a few. They each had multiple children – I have none. They emigrated from Yemen and escaped a war zone – I emigrated from the Midwest and escaped Scott Walker.

The conversation was slow going. I was on my final small-talk go-to: “So, any plans for the rest of the day?”

“No. Going home, making dinner for everyone.”

Finally! Something I can talk about forever – food.

“Oh, you like to cook?”

“Yes. Do you?”

“Yes! What do you cook?”

The women I was speaking with proceeded to tell me, in some detail, exactly what they typically make. In short, “lamb and rice, but mixed together.” (Note: it took a lot of restraint to not invite myself over.) They were all enthusiastic about it, and it was clear that this dish was part of their food identity.

When they asked what I like to make, I was speechless. It’s not often I am without words. The first thing that came to mind was spaghetti with meat sauce. It is one of the first dishes I learned how to make, and it remains a weeknight classic. (Though, I make ‘bolognese’ now and prefer bucatini over spaghetti.) But that didn’t seem right – pasta didn’t seem like the food of my “people”.

The foods that are of my “people” – bratwurst, cheese curds, and Friday-night Fish Fry, aren’t foods I make at home. Plus, trying to explain a cheese curd using a limited English vocabulary was going to be tough. In the end, I said I liked to make chicken with vegetables.

We all agreed that we liked pizza.


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