senior column | Lustig ’23: Food as Community

I wrote my Common App essay on food. There was no other topic so important to me at the time, and although a lot has changed since then, there is still nothing I would rather write about when reflecting on the past four years.

I thoroughly enjoy all types of cuisine. If I don’t have much to do (or even if I do), I’ll plan my whole day around meals. And while the main attraction of food is usually its taste, it has come to represent something deeper for me: a vehicle for connecting with others. Whether through late-night Jo’s or the rare dinner off College Hill, I’ve seen food create and strengthen powerful bonds between diners — and, in turn, shape our Brown experiences.

“Can I sit here?” was one of the scariest questions we asked ourselves as freshmen, but it was also one of the most interesting. If you saw a semi-familiar face in a dining room (after a week or two, it didn’t take long to find one), chances are he gladly accepted you at his table. And while it was often difficult to talk through bites of a burrito bowl, even a little conversation could create new relationships.

After establishing some preliminary relationships, the shared meals sparked more shared experiences and allowed our bonds to grow. In first grade, I was lucky enough to be in a class with two girls who lived on my floor. The happiest part, however, was that the class ended at noon, so we could all go to lunch together. Once we had carefully debriefed the ups and downs of that day’s conference, we would start sharing untold facts about ourselves, then head upstairs to our respective rooms. Four years later, I share an apartment with those same girls, who have become some of my closest friends.

It was with people like them that I also discovered food as a form of therapy. Comfort food can be just that: a way to find comfort, especially in the company of others.

I aired my fair share of grievances about McDonald’s fries and listened to roommates’ woes about smacking baby carrots. More often than not, we realized that we had all experienced something similar. And just as often, we’ve learned a new way to look at, deal with, or make peace with the challenge ahead. It was through these eating sessions that I came to recognize that snacking is generative.

My time in college taught me that listening to and learning from others is powerful. Doing it in a shared space adds yet another layer of meaning. Add a colossal bag of vegetable straws, spread among six people on a dormitory floor, and you may have created the perfect medicine.

As my college friendships deepened over the years, conventional mealtime conversation was gradually replaced by kinetic, visceral joy, especially during festive times. The discovery was not necessary because we were honoring a holiday, an achievement or a difficult weekend; instead, our laughter reinforced past accomplishments. We basked in familiarity, remembering how much our campus communities meant to us.

Home-cooked food, like at a Brown Friendsgiving or a spontaneous potluck, was particularly well suited to times like these. Personal and vulnerable, cooking for someone else involves a deep connection between the chef and the recipients. Ultimately, these meals were celebrations not only of events, but also of the intimacy of the moment.

I have found, however, that the ultimate form of intimacy comes when nothing at all is going on. Sometimes it’s late and you just need to place a big group order from Taco Bell because you’re hungry and craving Crunchwraps. Sometimes you just need to relax while you feast. The food, and your devotion to it, speaks for itself as you all finally allow yourselves to relax in each other’s company.

If you’re lucky, it may become a tradition – each consecutive meal may remind you of the last. Over the past year, my house has fully embraced the midnight meal: a weekly ritual where we barely spoke but were surprisingly present. It was one of the few times we could all get together and made sure to savor every bite.

As our college careers draw to a close, it can be hard to imagine starting from scratch, trying to build relationships with people we don’t yet know. But while this food-centric track record has come to define my relationships at Brown, I know it will extend far beyond College Hill. No matter where we are, who we meet or what we eat, sitting down to a meal can offer a nostalgic allure and the rare promise of finding truly meaningful connections.

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