Every Friday in high school a group of friends and I ate at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Roby, who had grown up in Mexico, was appalled that the rest of us requested mild salsa with our burritos. He began requiring us to take shots of hot sauce whenever we lost a bet. If the stakes were especially high, he brought homemade salsa from his family, which was how I learned about habanero peppers. Over time my tolerance for spicy foods grew, and I began putting hot sauce on almost everything I ate.

About a decade later, while traveling in Thailand, I stumbled upon a festival in the city of Chaiyaphum. From a food vendor I ordered a red curry with makhuea, a small green eggplant native to Thailand. The young attendant gently suggested that I try the yellow curry instead, saying it was “best for Americans.” I assured her I’d be fine. An older man emerged from the kitchen and told me the red curry was too hot, and if it was the eggplant I wanted, he would add it to the yellow curry especially for me. I asked if I could at least try the red, and he begrudgingly filled a small cup. Two other people came out of the kitchen to watch. “Try just a little first,” he warned, but I took a heaping gulp. Although it burned, I smiled broadly, asked for more, and received a round of applause.

The owner’s house was behind the food stall, and he invited me to eat dinner with his family. For the next few hours I learned about their lives, told stories of growing up in California, and, of course, devoured large quantities of the delicious red curry. Even though I was halfway around the world, I felt right at home.

Paul Grafton
Cayucos, California

With each smack of the knife against the cutting board, the odor of raw fish grows stronger. My mother tosses precisely cut chunks of northern red snapper into the pot of boiling water, then adds a bulb of spring onion, minced ginger, diced tofu, and a sprinkle of goji berries—steps she’s performed countless times to make her famous fish-bone broth.

I first tried her broth at the age of five, when Mom walked into the playroom carrying a blue porcelain bowl, picked out a small piece of fish with her chopsticks, and fed it to me. As I chewed, something jabbed the roof of my mouth: a fish bone my mom had overlooked. I panicked and swallowed the bone, feeling it lodge in my throat. Afraid to say anything, I dutifully opened my mouth for more, but from that moment on my relationship with the soup was fraught.

As I grew older, I could no longer conceal my disgust for the broth, full of tofu with fish scales stuck to it and soggy goji berries. Whenever the familiar odor permeated the house, I’d scowl, throw a tantrum, and threaten to starve. My mom insisted fish broth is the brain’s golden food, nutritious and healthy, but her comments did nothing to lessen my loathing.

One day, as I feigned vomiting at the bowl in front of me, my mom told me about her childhood in a village in southern China. At nine years old she attended an elementary school in the city, staying at a friend’s house during the week and riding her bike home on weekends. Before she left for school on Monday mornings, her mother would prepare a bento box with a few pieces of meat and vegetables. The meager portion was supposed to last until Friday. When the contents of her bento box ran out, my mother’s diet consisted of rice doused in soy sauce, the only food her host family offered. Pride prevented her from asking for more.

As I stared at the broth, now forming a film of oil, a wave of guilt washed over me. How could I have been so insensitive? Fish-bone broth was an emblem of the life my mom had struggled to attain, one in which she could provide her children with the abundance she’d never had.

Reaching across the table, my mom skimmed the film away, revealing the creamy white soup she’d spent years perfecting. I picked up my spoon and began to eat.

Orange, California

Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my sister, Elena, who was four years older and seemingly born into the wrong family. Her penchant for culture and sophistication caused friction in our working-class household, and sisterly moments between us were few, but I couldn’t help admiring her fashion style. She spent her babysitting money on shoes, fabric, and teen magazines. I would secretly raid her side of the closet after she left for school. Once, she caught me wearing her favorite peasant skirt, which resulted in serious hair pulling, kicking, and a torn window shade.

Elena left home when she was nineteen, taking her wardrobe with her, but not before presenting me with the coveted peasant skirt as a parting gift. Over the years she’s sought to close the gap between us by sending me more prized hand-me-downs than I could ever wear. I relish the warmth of her cable-knit turtleneck and the compliments I get on her black pencil skirt. Sometimes she brings me clothes that appear unworn, often with the tags still attached and in shades suspiciously more suitable for my coloring than her own. But the best thing she’s given me is the sisterhood I’ve always craved.

Sue Barizon
San Mateo, California

I have a friend I would describe as fearless. He has jumped out of airplanes, climbed mountains, and visited countries in the midst of civil war. In our senior year of high school he signed up for tennis and went undefeated, even though he had never touched a racket before.

There is one thing he absolutely refuses to do, however: eat a vegetable. Whenever I feel like a coward because I’m too scared to skydive, I go to the kitchen and have a carrot.

William Landers
Birmingham, Alabama

“Where’s your boyfriend at?” my grandfather asked, nudging me from his recliner.

I got asked this at every family reunion, even though I didn’t have a boyfriend. Some of my family members knew why; others, like my grandfather, didn’t. I carefully considered how to respond.

“I’m not interested in boys,” I told him. Another sentence rested on my tongue—I like girls—but my lips refused to let it out.

“Oh, sure you are,” he responded innocently—or maybe ignorantly. He patted my arm as if to comfort me, but I couldn’t help but find the gesture dismissive. He seemed to be telling me, Don’t say it.

I wanted to tell him I had a girlfriend who was learning to be a teacher. She was interning at a kindergarten. I wanted to tell him how nervous I was to meet her parents. How excited I was for the trip we were planning together. How I hoped one day he could meet her.

But I didn’t say anything, because I loved my grandfather, and he loved me, and I wanted to keep it that way.

Birmingham, Alabama

“That tastes bitter,” my mom said, making a face. She’d just taken a bite of chocolate torte. Inwardly I rolled my eyes. The torte was heavy on cocoa and light on sugar, and if there’s one thing that can be said about my mother, it’s that she likes her sugar.

At our house I grew up drinking Pepsi and extra-large glasses of juice. When we went to the grocery store, my mom bought my siblings and me king-size candy bars. In the mornings she added heaps of sugar to our Cheerios. When anyone had a bad day, we’d all go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard. Sugar cured everything: disappointment, low self-esteem, loneliness, boredom. And, given the amount of sugar we indulged in, it was clear Mom never wanted her kids to feel bad.

As a child I had severe asthma, and the daily pill I had to take was terribly bitter. My mom crushed it and tried to hide it in applesauce and milkshakes, but nothing masked the flavor. I came to see the bitterness as a challenge to overcome. By the time I was four years old, I had learned to swallow the pill whole.

My mom, on the other hand, has never learned to take the bitter with the sweet. In spite of a diabetes diagnosis, she still reaches for ginger ale and ice cream to help take the edge off disappointment or boredom. I used to judge her for this, but since I’ve come to understand how difficult life can be, I can no longer begrudge her something that makes her feel good.

Portland, Oregon

In the home-improvement store my husband and I peer at samples of quartz countertops. “I like this one,” I say, touching a stone-colored slab. The salesperson informs us it’s the most expensive, and I laugh. Of course it is.

“Why not this one?” my husband asks, pointing to a rectangle that, to me, looks like glitter-impregnated plastic. I shake my head. He shrugs and says he can’t see the difference.

My mother calls it the “curse of good taste.” I sometimes wonder how she—raised in the foothills of Tennessee by a used-car salesman and a seamstress—acquired an appreciation for pricey antiques, expensive perfume, and high-end clothing. What turns a child who grew up on American cheese and white bread into a woman whose wealthy neighbors ask her to decorate their homes and curate their closets? I remember her cringing at “tacky” home renovations and at mothers who wore clothes and makeup better suited for their teenage daughters. She was not above a bargain, but she had no trouble sorting the designer items from the chaff at TJ Maxx.

When I was sixteen, she took me to Atlanta to shop for a prom dress. In the dressing room of Neiman Marcus she handed me a velvet seafoam gown with delicate beading and a fluted skirt. I felt like a mermaid in it. When she told me it was too expensive, I was disappointed and also a little angry. Why had she given it to me to try on? It would have been better not to have known what I was missing.

It occurs to me now that she had probably done that very thing countless times herself as a young woman, before she’d married into a family with money: Tried on. Touched. Imagined. I wonder how she felt when she finally could afford the beautiful items that for so long had made her good taste a burden.

I’m also curious what she thinks of me, the daughter who has renounced conspicuous consumption and recently quit her job as a college professor to live a simpler life on a homestead in rural Appalachia. Does she know that I still open every promotional email I get from Anthropologie? That I covet linen duvet covers and cashmere sweaters? Does she know that, despite my will to be otherwise, I still have the curse?

Lucy Bryan
Fresno, Ohio

While I was a Peace Corps volunteer at a village in Nepal, I took occasional trips to the capital, Kathmandu. After months of eating the national dish of rice, lentils, and a smattering of vegetables twice a day, I had a hankering for something sweet. My roommate in Kathmandu and fellow volunteer, Allen, suggested pancakes, so off he went to the street market. He returned with flour wrapped in newspaper and a tin can filled with coal-black syrup, which he’d bought from an old man squatting on the street, ladling the stuff out of a bucket.

The three-day journey from the village to the city had left me with a huge appetite, and I ate the largest portion of pancakes, doused in the syrup, which looked like molasses but tasted like very dark honey.

After breakfast I headed out to the US embassy to get papers for an upcoming vacation. On the way I felt a strange, prickly heat take over my body. By the time I arrived at the embassy, I was sweating profusely and felt nauseous. I rushed out the door to the lawn and suddenly went blind, lost all muscular control, and dropped to the ground like a stunned animal. I was carried on a stretcher to a small medical office, where a nurse asked me questions, but every time I tried to answer, or to move any part of my body, it froze, rigid as concrete, and took several minutes to relax. I was both blind and mute, and my body spasmed like the dogs I had seen poisoned on the streets of Kathmandu.

The staff soon got word that Allen was lying on a table at the Peace Corps office with similar symptoms, and they figured out our illness was caused by something we ate.

After twenty-four hours the toxins in my body had either dissipated or been thrown up, my vision returned, and my muscles relaxed. I went back to the apartment, where Allen was also recovering, and we spent the evening planning our revenge on the syrup vendor. We fantasized grabbing him by his puny arms and forcing half a bucket of his honey down his gullet. He would never sell his poisonous goop again.

I later found out that the syrup was actually “mad honey,” made by bees that had gathered pollen from the giant rhododendrons found in the hills of Nepal. A neurotoxin in it causes convulsions, blindness, or worse.

Sometimes when I put a jar of pasteurized, refined honey into my shopping basket at my neighborhood grocery, I am reminded of that pancake lunch and miss the intensity of my life in Nepal, where you never knew what was in a mystery bucket.

Jeffrey Hersch
Denver, Colorado

As I gazed in the mirror, part of me was aware I looked ridiculous. It was 1997, and I was trying on my first pair of extra-wide jeans, the cool trend at the time for skateboarders like me. Swimming in denim, I knew deep down it was not a good look, but my friend Tony was having none of my doubts. “Now you’ve got some style, brother!” he said. I bought the jeans.

Tony and I had met in college. We both played in popular local bands and rented a house together. He had chin-length black dreads and a goatee, and he wore thrift-store clothes but made them look both tasteful and hip. His look was punk-rock lawyer.

My look was oversize plaid Bermuda shorts, polyester golf shirts, and a gas-station jacket. Which is why I’d asked Tony to help me shop. “The most important thing you’ve got to consider when buying clothes,” Tony told me, “is taste.”

I still haven’t developed a personal style. Every time I go shopping, a little Tony appears on my shoulder, reminding me of the Most Important Thing, which I worry I will never have. It’s exhausting to evaluate every clothing choice. Sometimes I want to return to the old me who didn’t care about fashion.

Nearly three decades after buying those comically wide jeans, I’m seated around a bonfire, beating an African drum. It’s the final night of a men’s retreat, a culmination of two days of intense emotional work. Almost everyone is naked, including me. I’m sure most of the participants are thinking about the transcendent nature of the celebration; about becoming better versions of themselves, free from the shackles of society’s expectations. But I’m thinking about how nudity has freed me from figuring out how to present myself to the world. I let out a war whoop and think, Finally.

Ty Sassaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota

One of the hardest parts of doing time is having to eat the food in the mess hall. I miss the taste of good cooking more than I miss sex. Now I see the truth of my mom’s words: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

My mom emigrated from Korea when she married my dad, a US Army serviceman. Cooking for four sons and a husband on a tight budget, she couldn’t afford imported Korean ingredients, so she was always improvising. She might sauté a sliced hot dog in soy sauce with onions, garlic, and red pepper, then serve it on rice. Sometimes on the phone, when I tell my mom I miss her, she’ll tease me, saying, “You don’t miss me; you miss my cooking.”

Though I can’t match her meals, I try to imitate her creative approach, combining food from our commissary with leftovers from the mess hall. There’s only so much I can do with ramen-seasoning packets, squeeze cheese, and mixed veggies off a tray, but to me it means a lot. Every time I invent a meal, it tastes a little like freedom, a little like home.

George Wilkerson
Raleigh, North Carolina

My friends and family all know that when I enjoy a food, I really enjoy it. For years my favorite drink was coffee with canned evaporated milk, a carryover from my childhood in Peru. It was not only delicious but imbued with memories of my grandmother making me a cup over the gas stove in her small kitchen.

Cheese, eggs, and butter were close behind in the list of ingredients that made my taste buds sing. Lying in bed at night, I’d dream of the next day’s breakfast: scrambled eggs with cheddar and a fresh baguette slathered in butter. Once, at the end of an art-gallery opening, I tucked an enormous hunk of fancy cheese from the food table into my bag. My boyfriend was aghast when I pulled it out at home. “But they were going to throw it away!” I cried.

When I lived in Tokyo, I frequented my local sushi joint for crab-salad rolls: two pieces of heaven on a plate. I could easily eat two dozen and often did, to the amusement of the waitstaff, who’d rub their tummies and point at me.

I joyously consumed these foods for years, but then my tastes began to change. I read articles about how we are ravaging the ocean and depleting fishing stocks. How could I continue to contribute to this overconsumption? The last straw was when I took a trip to California and ordered fish tacos. I was so put off by the grotesque amount of mahi-mahi in them that I decided then and there to remove fish from my diet.

I continued to happily tuck into eggs, cheese, butter, and evaporated milk until I visited a friend who’d recently become a vegan. She lent me Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, and the sadness and despair I felt as I read it convinced me I could not in good conscience continue eating my favorite foods. Gone were the last of the dishes that brought me joy.

I’ve been vegan for almost seven years, and though I sometimes miss my old comfort foods, I’ve found new dishes that bring me happiness. I feel better physically, and my spirit is at ease knowing that I am nourishing my body without causing suffering. My taste buds can still sing to a different, more compassionate tune.

Leila Palomino
Toronto, Ontario

I didn’t give much thought to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which gives terminally ill patients the right to end their lives through self-administered medication, until my mom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. We met with doctors, and she listed her requirements for a baseline quality of life.

After a few weeks her condition dramatically declined, and the time came to enact her wishes, but doubt lingered in me. Did she comprehend that today was the day?

The powder was mixed into a few ounces of juice. We were told the mixture tasted terrible, and my mother should numb her mouth by sucking on a popsicle between swallows. Our family gathered around her bed, and the ritual began: the sweetness of the popsicle followed by the harshness of the medicine.

After my mother’s last swallow, she closed her eyes and handed me the popsicle. I put it into my mouth and got a brief but powerful taste of the medication. Any doubt I had that she knew what she was doing vanished. A person would need incredible willpower to swallow that bitter concoction.

Alpine, Oregon

Since middle school I have had a taste for bad boys: long hair, ripped jeans, muscle cars, cigarettes, bad attitudes. They got me into trouble over the years, sometimes leading to flashing red-and-blue lights in my driveway. But the sex was always good.

In my mid-twenties I wised up and fell for a smart, funny, kind man who liked to read and rearrange the furniture. We had a beautiful child together. But his taste, it turned out, leaned a bit too much toward men. I eventually left him for a weed-addicted poet on a motorcycle. When that fell apart—he told me he was afraid I was “turning into a high-school teacher” (I was a high-school teacher)—I found another good guy, an openhearted man who shared my values of family and community.

We have been together nearly twenty years, but our sex life died a long time ago. It’s become a problem. He didn’t sign up for a sexless relationship, he says, and he wants a girlfriend. Recently he said he’s figured out why we don’t have chemistry: he’s attracted to more feminine women, and I’m still attracted to inaccessible men.

Name Withheld

My mother was something of a snob. She’d made good by marrying a career military officer, and from her position of security, she freely cast judgment on others and taught her daughters to do likewise. Anything she didn’t care for—art that differed from what she liked, wardrobe choices she found unattractive, home decor she wouldn’t have chosen—she dismissed as “in bad taste.”

She was particularly scornful of plastic flamingos on lawns. All of us pointed and laughed when we saw one. It was almost a game. “Oh, look! Six flamingos over there,” someone would say, and heads would swivel to take in this worst of all offenses.

As an adult I obtained a professional degree and worked for a company that developed software for educational institutions. From time to time I would be sent into the field to train customers to use the software. One day I drove to a school-district office to teach their accounts-payable clerk how to use a system called WISE. The computer was slow that day, and the program’s logo, a “wise” owl, displayed for an unusually long time as we logged on. To break the silence I asked the clerk what she thought of the owl.

“It’s all right,” she said.

Lowering my voice conspiratorially, I said, “I think it’s in bad taste myself. You know: like flamingos on someone’s lawn.”

“I have flamingos on my lawn,” she replied.

I excused myself and slunk to the restroom.

I try to learn from my mistakes. So when I redid my yard several years later, I put out a pink flamingo in it to remind me of that lesson. I wonder if people laugh at it when they drive by.

Linda Myers
Brier, Washington

Gombóc are the Hungarian version of potato dumplings, traditionally filled with a pitted plum or apricot. As with matzo balls, their success or failure depends on their consistency: the ideal texture resembles a baby’s plump cheek. Sprinkled with sugar and served warm, they are to die for.

Three months after my mother died, I tried to make gombóc myself for the first time. The dumplings were her offering of love, a family favorite she’d happily produced upon request for her children or grandchildren. When she’d made them, the process had seemed simple enough, each step flowing smoothly into the next.

My dough, however, refused to coalesce into the right consistency. Whereas my mother had commanded her kitchen efficiently, mine was awash in sticky potato and flour. I couldn’t pick up the phone to ask her what I’d done wrong, whether I needed to work something else into the dough. Since her death I hadn’t been able to cry, but now the full weight of how much I missed her bore down on me. Teardrops fell onto the gummy rolling pin.

Grief has never before shadowed me like this. When my father died, I was devastated. I think and dream of him often. But losing my mother has intruded into every aspect of my life. I long for the intimacy I had with her, an intimacy I now see I took for granted.

I feel a responsibility to keep her memory alive; to bear witness to her suffering and her triumph in surviving the concentration camps; to never forget. I also feel the need to remind her grandchildren and great-grandchildren of her unconditional love. I do this by trying to re-create her dishes that brought us together at the dinner table: Wiener schnitzel, stuffed peppers, brisket, cabbage rolls, and her famous apple squares.

The dumplings remain my greatest challenge. Even if I practice until I’m ninety-five, as she was when she passed, I don’t think I’ll ever match her perfect gombóc, and I know I will never stop missing her.

Susan Hoffman
Toronto, Ontario

When I was three, I ate a slice of toast at preschool. I savored the lightly browned white bread, the thin layer of butter, the way it crunched when I took a bite. The next time my mom asked me what I wanted for a snack, I joyfully requested buttered toast. She gave me toasted whole-grain bread with a seeded crust and too much butter. Feeling panic welling up, I refused to eat it. My frustrated mother told me to go to my room and not to come out until I was ready to eat the toast.

It was only the first battle of a near-endless war.

Just before my senior year in high school I was diagnosed with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID. Most eating disorders involve a fear of how food affects the body; ARFID is a phobia of food itself. My sensory sensitivity causes extreme aversions to certain tastes, textures, and smells.

A few weeks into that school year my friendships were falling apart, and I had almost entirely stopped eating. In September my parents took me to the ER. Such trips were routine by then. Dad brought my overnight bag filled with hoodies, their strings removed; Mom and I curled up together on the hospital bed. Nineteen hours later the doctors agreed to send me home, under one condition: I had to eat a tray of hospital food first.

I looked at the limp slices of French toast drowned in syrup, the sausage patty that squelched when I pressed it, and the orange with a sagging peel. Eat this, and I could go home. With stiff, robotic motions I moved the spoon from the tray to my mouth and walked away victorious.

Very few people understand the fear and disgust that underlie ARFID. When I taste a new food, I often hear an I-told-you-so: “See, you survived!” or “That wasn’t so bad, right?” For me the experience is terrifying. Putting a new food in my mouth feels unsafe and overwhelming.

Every Wednesday night I practice with my therapist and my mother. Tonight the food is a chicken nugget cut in half and placed in a bowl of rice. My heart starts to pound as I look at the two small bites. Step one is taking note of what I see. I notice where the rice sticks to the breaded crust of the chicken. Step two is touch. I press my finger into the rice, feeling the grains. Now it’s time to taste. The spoon almost never makes it into my mouth on the first try; at the last moment I pull it away. Eventually I take a bite. For a moment my ears ring, and my body freezes. Then the world rushes back in: an overwhelming mix of texture and flavor, the deafening sound of chewing. For a moment I almost forget how to swallow.

Sometimes I’ll spend weeks working on a new food, trying it over and over again, until I realize it is not fear that keeps me from wanting to eat it but true dislike. Other times the repeated practice erases the fear, and, just like that, I’ve discovered a new favorite: orange chicken, lemon green beans, crunchy beef tacos, a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich.

I haven’t eaten buttered toast since that day sixteen years ago, but I can picture the crumbs sticking to my lips, the smooth saltiness of the butter on my tongue. Maybe it’s time to give it a try.

Abigail Livergood
Anaheim, California

It wasn’t easy for my father to raise a family of six on a letter carrier’s salary. We lived in a small apartment in the Bronx and were always just this side of poverty. But the job did have its perks. In those days companies mailed consumers free samples of the latest snack food or cleaning product, and there were always extras for postal workers to bring home. We had so many Carnation Instant Breakfast samples that I drank one every morning for the better part of second grade. When a McDonald’s opened up in the neighborhood and mailed coupons for free items, it felt like we had hit the jackpot.

My brother Joey and I were not close. He thought my friends and I and our Barbie dolls were ridiculous, and I didn’t understand why he was obsessed with the moon landing and outer space. But in these coupons we found a common passion. The Saturday we got our first taste of a McDonald’s cheeseburger, it was the most delicious thing either of us had ever eaten. We pooled our bus fare home to buy a Coke and fries to share and walked back. We returned every weekend, tasting a new menu item each time. His favorite was the Filet-O-Fish. Mine was the Big Mac.

The coupons lasted a month or two. Then we went back to our normal routine: I to my friends and Barbies, Joey to his solitary world of model airplanes and rocket ships, and both of us to silent family dinners of chicken, overboiled broccoli, and bruised fruit.

Joey went on to study aeronautical engineering at MIT but developed schizophrenia in his senior year. By the time I finished college, he’d committed suicide. Those childhood days at McDonald’s would be the best times we ever had together.

I’m now married and have three children, all of whom would rather go hungry than eat fast food. I make my own granola and yogurt. People often assume I am a vegetarian, but the truth is that about once a week on my lunch hour you can find me at a drive-through ordering a juicy burger. There is still nothing as delicious to me in the whole world.

Lucy Garbus
Florence, Massachusetts

Julia had spiky red hair and wore black tights, short skirts, and low-slung chain belts. She was my exotic neighbor who laughed at my taste in music. I listened to Wham!, REO Speedwagon, and Journey as a college freshman; she played guitar and sang along to the Smiths, Kate Bush, the Violent Femmes, and Lou Reed.

Wanting to impress her, I began listening to her favorite bands and learning about the indie-music scene, with its lo-fi, DIY aesthetic and distorted guitars—nothing like the slick, overproduced bands I’d liked before. I collected records and fell in love with the Replacements, the Pixies, the Wedding Present, Hüsker Dü, and the Velvet Underground. I even became the program director at the college radio station, and Julia became my girlfriend.

That was almost forty years ago. My relationship with Julia failed quickly and spectacularly, but my love for indie lasted. Today I have multiple turntables, a high-fidelity stereo system, more than a thousand records, and a weekly show at the community radio station. I never could have imagined the joy this music would bring when I was just a college kid trying to impress a girl.

Paul Eagle
Nevada City, California

On November 20, 2020, my dad died from cancer. The next day Nebraska’s health department called my mom to inform her that she and I had both tested positive for COVID. By the following morning my senses of taste and smell were gone.

Numbed by grief and concern for my seventy-nine-year-old mother’s health, I watched as a surreal abundance of funeral casseroles and Thanksgiving dishes poured in. All I could experience of the food was the mouthfeel.

Months passed, and my senses of smell and taste did not return. I’d agree with my dinner companions about the deliciousness of meals so as not to arouse pity or invite questions.

Eight months after my dad’s death I was coaxing the trash bag out of its can when I noticed it smelled terrible. I ran to my boyfriend to tell him the good news: “The trash stinks!”

A week later I threw together a lunch of cold salmon and leftover mustard potato salad. As I bit into the first forkful, my mouth flooded with saliva, and every taste bud felt electrified. I sat in my kitchen, dumbfounded. It was the first food I’d been able to taste since my dad had died.

Every once in a while I’ll make a meal of cold salmon and mustard potato salad, to remind myself to be grateful for things exactly as they are.

Cornelia Bailey
Chicago, Illinois

Every Diwali my family has moong dal halwa for the festival feast. Preparations begin the night before, when yellow moong lentils are soaked in water. The next day they are ground to a paste, then cooked on the stove with ghee and sugar and stirred with a spoon for hours. The women of the house perform this task, with occasional help from my grandfather if he finds the texture incorrect during his afternoon inspection.

One Diwali I asked to try my hand at making the halwa. My mother looked doubtful: my cooking skills weren’t great. But I persisted, and my aunt said she would supervise. I followed her instructions: half a kilogram of moong-lentil paste stirred into an equal amount of ghee, with sugar added after ten minutes. Then came the relentless stirring. If you give up, the halwa either stays undercooked or gets burned, and the star of the feast is ruined.

While I stirred, my aunt left the kitchen to rest. A few minutes later I realized the mixture was burning. “It’s getting stuck, Chachi!” I cried. My aunt came running to find scorched black bits in the pot. I was too old to cry and too young to know how to fix my mistake, so all I could do was say I was sorry, a word that matters little in an Indian household.

My aunt tried to save the halwa, and she succeeded to some extent, though the experienced eaters at the feast knew something had gone wrong. One of the fathers asked who had made it. I was about to speak when my aunt broke in. “I did,” she said. “This time, I faltered a bit.” Nobody said another word.

Deep inside I thanked my aunt. And I prayed to Lord Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god renowned for lifting a mountain, to make my arms as strong as his so that I wouldn’t fail next time.

Vanditaa Kothari

When I was young, my mother taught me domestic skills because, as she put it, I was not going to grow up to be “one of those guys who can’t fend for themselves.” She wanted to make sure I knew how to do more in the kitchen than open a can and heat what was inside. I found cooking relaxing, and I have many fond memories of preparing food with my mother and both of my grandmothers.

Once I moved out, I had the pleasure of setting up my own kitchen and cooking for potlucks, tailgate parties, and dinners at my apartment. When I was dating, I found that a meal at home gave me a deeper insight into the person than going out. The atmosphere was more relaxed, and working together in the kitchen led to laughter and smiles. With one woman in particular I had a strong feeling there was the potential for more. I began paying extra attention to every dish I made for her, wanting to please her as much as possible.

After we’d been seeing each other awhile, she confessed that she wasn’t skilled in the kitchen. When I assured her she was probably a better cook than she was giving herself credit for, she invited me to her place for a meal of everything she knew how to make.

I arrived at her house, where the table had been set with candles and cloth napkins. First she brought out bowls of lettuce with my favorite salad dressing on the side, and I stared into her eyes while we ate. Then she cleared away the bowls and returned with the main course: grilled cheese sandwiches and a side of macaroni and cheese, clearly straight out of the box. No toppings or trimmings.

After we’d finished, she asked how I’d liked it. I told her I could tell she really liked cheese, which made her chuckle. Then I suggested that, if she was OK with it, I’d do most of the cooking.

We’ve been together more than twenty-five years, and in that time she’s broadened her repertoire. She routinely cooks for our growing family, even tackling a holiday feast without help. But for me no meal she’s made compares to the first.

Christopher Stechman
Coralville, Iowa