Updated: Jan 12
There’s soul food, there’s comfort food and then there’s loving food. Food that tastes like the person who made it is loving on you in the purest way. This is food where you can taste your connection to the cook and even completely new flavors taste familiar. The story, experience, perspective and even the mood of the cook is translated through flavor; this is not restaurant food, it cannot be. This is cuisine you can only experience intimately, hand to mouth, stovetop pot to an eager bowl waiting anxiously beside the oven with hungry hands cupped anticipating that first ladle drop.
At Jen’s house, loving food is not brought to you, you are drawn to it, allured by the wafting wisps of sweet, sour, smokey perfumed air, the bubbling plops and putters of a simmering stew and most importantly, the frequent sips and samples along the way to the finished meal. In her kitchen, food is storytelling, education and experimentation. I always know why I'm eating what I'm eating, where it came from, how it’s changed and even what it could be. Even the quickest recipe is privileged with time, that is to say that even the simplest of dishes are given every last second of the necessary time to communicate her love for you.
"This bitch is hugging me with this soup"
It was after my first mouthful of a sour tamarind-based Filipino soup called “Sinagang” that I realized that Jen has this incredible ability to express love through food and that this was uncommon prowess. Many people can cook well, a few people can cook amazingly well and even fewer people can express love through food. It was in a post-bite euphoria where the salty and sour, flavors of chicken, pickled mustard greens, carrot, potatoes and tamarind melded together like words of an autobiography and made me think, “this bitch is hugging me with this soup”.
Somehow, the story of her mother making this for her as a child came through the pickled and tart greens, Jen’s love of layered flavors surfed on wave of hot tamarind broth crashing on the pink sandy beach of my tongue and the tender hunks of buttery chicken took the edible form of our long and hearty friendship. This is not just food that gets you full, this is “full-food” and is exactly why you cannot experience this in a restaurant.
It’s not Jen’s hand and heart alone that express edible love, rather, too, the hand of her partner and my other best friend, Leo. He is foundational in their partnership and a fervent supporter of both her and me. Echoing Leo's supportive spirit is his rice, though simple, it is lovingly and masterfully executed to rest beneath Jen’s soup, grounding it and expanding it with filling grain. I know it’s a strange way to put it but, Leo’s rice tasted intentional, it’s was delicious and it felt like he really meant it when he made it or, the rice making equivalent of a mic-drop.
Jen is surely a technical cook but that’s not what makes her food special, it’s what makes her food tasty. The uniqueness of Jen’s cooking is her lucid expression of story and affection through technical and experimental cooking. I’ve had my hands cupped beside her oven for over 16 years of friendship and not once have I had the same thing twice. Even if she repeats the same dish, it’s never made the same way. Each and every dish serves a brand new loving embrace.
As with all of her food, I could taste Jen’s love not only for the food itself but also the love she put into creating it for me. Something I've always felt in her food became all so clear to me in a bowl of her chicken soup. It was, that as good as getting one of Jen’s hugs is, eating them is even better.