Courtesy of Hannah Nguyen/MiC.

On a late night some time ago, I sat and watched as my mom made cupcakes for Teacher’s Appreciation Week at my elementary school. She skillfully danced through the kitchen. Her execution of the chocolate and vanilla cupcakes recipe was like choreography she had perfected. I wouldn’t be surprised if she could cook with her eyes closed considering all the time she spent in the kitchen. Despite the late hours, the repeated beating of the mixer and the opening and closing of the oven ensued, and she worked meticulously as the night went on. I remember a specific moment where she let me play with a little bit of icing — I practiced my calligraphy as though mine could amount to her 20-plus years of experience icing words. At that moment, I stopped and asked her why she wanted to make all my teachers cupcakes in the first place. 

It wasn’t uncommon for my mom to make food for other people. Even in my earliest memories, she cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Everyone always commented on my school lunches as though they were Michelin-starred meals with heart and star-shaped ham, cheese and crackers or freshly made salmon that steamed up the container. Every lunch came with the main, a snack, and fruit, all with large portions that I could almost never finish. On days where we would eat leftovers for dinner, she would still always make at least one new dish to serve. She was motivated by our “yums”, “mms” and “this-is-so-good” compliments; I could see her happiness every time as she explained what went into preparing the meal. 

For our birthdays, she would spend all day — sometimes even two — cooking whatever we wanted along with a birthday cake of whatever flavor we liked. We would come home from extracurriculars to the scent of her hard work wafting through the outside air, strengthening as we made our way into the house. 

On the weekends that we’d go to our family friends’ homes, my mom would make platters of fried rice or egg rolls, or spend all day making her infamous Vietnamese honeycomb cake that everyone loves. She would always get excited when we would leave and her platters were empty because everyone enjoyed the food.

My mom always insisted on giving each member of the family the parts of the dish she knew they liked the most. In her warm Vietnamese sour soup, she would always give me chopsticks full of bean sprouts — my favorite part — or let my uncle take the flats when she made Korean fried chicken because she knew he preferred them over the drums.

After a long wait, my mom responded that food is like love. You put time and effort into it so that when you give it to someone, they instantly become happier. She said that for Teacher’s Appreciation Week, something homemade would be meaningful for the teachers who have worked so hard. I didn’t really understand what she meant at the moment, thinking she was just saying food is love — that if you give someone food it means you love them. And maybe that interpretation that 8-year-old me made was correct, but I think it’s more than that. She was teaching me that love isn’t some easy emotional or affective state, but something that takes time to build. You can’t just love, you have to create it, prepare it, and cook it up into something amazing to make it worth giving because empty I-love-yous don’t mean anything. And maybe that’s why my mom never verbalizes her love but instead prepares her food with it. At the same time, I think she was also saying that our love is valuable, too. It goes to the people who deserve it and show that they care, it’s not something we can always give freely. 

Giving food has become my way of saying I love you, and I believe my mother is the reason. Sharing food with my friends, cooking with my roommates, and the process of bonding over food has become vital parts to how I love. If there was a sixth love language, it would be sharing food and it would be my number one language in a heartbeat. 

MiC Columnist Hannah Nguyen can be reached at hannahnn@umich.edu.