Courtesy of Daphne Wilson.

There are five widely accepted love languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, gift-giving, quality time and physical touch. In my mind, there is one more: food. To cook for someone is inherently an act of service, a gift, a way to spend quality time with them. I have been taught this idea of cooking as a way to express love throughout my life. Like many of my peers of Color, I grew up around the authentic food of my cultures, in kitchens permanently imbued with the scent of strong spices. I remember being sous chef to my parents and grandparents. With my mother’s Lebanese family, I’d pick garden herbs while the smell of fresh-baked za’atar manaeesh constantly filled our home. With my father’s Indian-Caribbean family, I’d chop mango and roll roti “with love,” per my grandmother’s instructions. 

For many people of Color, food is far more than a means of sustenance. It is a way to display familial and cultural pride and love. It is a tangible marker of identity. It’s true that food brings people together, but it also has a potent ability to differentiate. A specific cultural cuisine gives meaning and understanding to a specific peoples. For me, food and culture have been directly intertwined for as long as I can remember. I look back and realize my relationship with food is indicative of my relationship with my identity.

At ages 6, 7, 8, I become aware of my differences. As a young boy, Eurocentrism is ingrained into my mind. I turn on Disney Channel and I can’t find a character who looks like me. Most of my friends are white, or Lebanese, like myself. Although I am only half. My Indo-Caribbean half is pronounced in my thick curls and brown skin. It is inconcealable. 

I am in my elementary school cafeteria. I peer down the row of kids sitting at my table and observe the sandwiches they pull out of their lunchboxes. White is the color of the bread and the hands that hold it. 

I’m informed of the cultural divide between my classmates and myself. We are not only separated by appearance, but also by habits and customs. The way they eat, speak and interact is different from me. I deduce that I must assimilate in order to fit in. 

At 9, 10, 11, I do all I can to look, act and feel like my peers. I try to smooth my hair over my forehead the way Justin Bieber does (at the time, a very dashing hairstyle). It doesn’t work. My hair is too thick and unruly and won’t succumb to the pressure of the comb. I try and try and try, again and again and again.

I am making Trinidadian hot sauce with my father. The peppers are so strong that he has me wear chemistry goggles while I blend the pepper-vinegar-garlic mixture. Like some sort of mad science experiment. It’s bizarre and abnormal to me. I wish my food wasn’t so pungent that it required safety precautions. 

I begin to equate normality with whiteness. 

My dad suggests I take leftover curry and roti for lunch. I reject the offer. 

As if I don’t stick out enough already! Imagine bringing a smelly, bright yellow pile of goop for lunch. All I desire is a normal PB&J. Just like I desire normal hair and skin and eyes and dinners and routines and customs and traditions. 

My mom is packing my lunch. She asks whether I want my turkey sandwich on fresh-from-the-bakery pita bread, or on “regular,” grocery-store, Wonder bread. I choose regular. 

I want to avoid calling attention to my otherness. I look in the mirror, though, and realize my attempts may be futile. I may not be able to be anything other than myself. 

In 2011, I visit Trinidad with my father for the first time. I am in awe. The culture is as rich as the food. The people are ever-friendly and laid back. An emphasis is placed on mealtime. Sometimes, an entire day is spent preparing dinner. When it’s time to eat, the family gathers around and heaps of golden curries and perfectly cooked veggies are scooped onto plates. Laughter and stories fill the tropic air. I witness meals bringing people together. And the food itself — like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. It is so extraordinarily delicious. The flavors are deep, striking, robust. I begin to question my way of thinking. Perhaps I’ve been trying so hard to shut out my own heritage that I’ve never taken the time to learn about it. Perhaps there is value and beauty in my culture that is worth appreciating. 

As I reach adolescence, puberty comes upon me and my Colored-ness is only exacerbated. My eyebrows get thicker, my nose bigger, my hair rowdier. It is increasingly hard to shut out my culture, my heritage. It is appearing all over me.

In high school, I create more connections with people of Color. I realize I am not alone in my experiences and almost every child of Color has gone through something similar to me. Friends and I bond over our collective assimilation attempts. Although unfortunate, there’s a sense of camaraderie in this fact. I feel empowered to lean into my differences that I once felt alienated me. I begin a new era of pride in my heritage and self. 

And so begins my love for hot sauce. Sriracha, RedHot, Cholula — you name it. I assume it started as a way to reject my past self’s attempts to assimilate to white people. A way to assert my ethnic-ness. To say “I can handle spicy food because I am Brown and I am proud!” without actually saying it. 

I douse everything I can in the tangy, mouth-watering liquid fire — sometimes at the expense of burning off a couple taste buds. I can barely go a meal without it. 

It’s not that I really need hot sauce on everything I eat. But I do it anyway, as a sort of subconscious way to reject Eurocentrism and affirm my cultural pride. 

A tiny bottle of Tabasco sits in my high-school locker, in case of emergency. 

I take interest in eating and cooking the recipes that I’ve previously run away from. I grow my hair out. Let it be. 

I’m at my Sito & Gido’s (Arabic for grandmother and grandfather) for dinner. My younger cousin assures me that “the hot sauce is already on the table for you, Jameel.” We chat over bowls of hummus and grape leaves. I look around the table at the genuine smiles of my family. And in that moment, amid our laughs and jokes and stories, I understand why my grandparents toiled for hours over the stove to prepare dinner. I understand the significance of mealtime in Trinidad. I understand why my parents fed me the food of their cultures. 

The meals I was raised on have centuries of tradition behind them. I’d never thought about food as a way to pass down culture, as a way to remember our ancestors, as a simple excuse to gather and catch up with loved ones. 

My dad sends me off to college with a jar of homemade Trini hot sauce. (I help make it, sans goggles this time. I’m old enough to be trusted.) 

Now that I prepare most of my meals myself, I always take a couple extra minutes to create breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I have someone over, I like to offer them a snack or a cup of tea. In these practices, I am not only showing love to myself and to others, but also for my cultures and upbringing. By following these customs, I no longer feel inferior; rather, I feel pride and connection to something larger than myself. The clink of a “cheers,” or the passing of dishes around a table are little gestures of togetherness and compassion — a love language.  There is a sentiment in breaking bread and offering food that is a simple, genuine way to convey love and care. 

I am cooking curry by myself for the first time. I instinctively warn my roommates that the smell might be strong. They say they don’t mind. That they’d like to try the food. 

I smile as I stir the pot. 

MiC Columnist Jameel Baksh can be reached at jbaksh@umich.edu.