First Course; or, Amuse Bouche

It began over food at 4am.

Eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns, to be exact. Shredded hashbrowns–they’re the only true way to do potatoes for breakfast and the only place in New Orleans that does ’em like that is Clover Grill, so that’s where we went. Neither of us had any illusions about what was to come when we plopped down in that greasiest of greasy spoons, the beer in our bellies eliciting cravings that only diner food could stomp out. We needed something to take home with us and thought it would be that Early Bird Special alone, but over those eggs rose a dialogue – a bond – that joined us in that moment and then stretched across the country, since we were each anchored to opposite coasts (the Gulf of Mexico and the Lake Michigan shore, that is, for all who think it’s only East Coast vs West Coast). Eventually the miles would close and those dining moments would become part of our daily lives that we would build in Chicago.

“Food is a large part of our everyday dialogue and oftentimes, these arguments carry the same amount of emotion and opinion as politics, religion, and sports do — sometimes more.”

How often does this story play itself out in other permutations, in other cities, in other countries? Our story is not unique, as much as we like to pretend; in fact, it is the norm. Food is often the conduit to our disparate existences, where we meet on common ground to break bread and to share our stories, loves, laughs, histories, and dreams. It is more than pure sustenance and is worthy of discussion – especially when cultural roots are planted anew in places foreign and strange.

For the record, we aren’t chefs, farmers, restauranteurs, or bartenders. We didn’t go to culinary school and we rarely follow a recipe. But we do come from a place of wonder, where food is not only both imaginative and part of our daily ritual but also both communal and personal. Food is debated, argued, and discussed. It’s a large part of our everyday dialogue and oftentimes, these arguments carry the same amount of emotion and opinion as politics, religion, and sports do — sometimes more. Chicago is not only a culinary Garden of Eden but also a city of strong culinary opinions. “Where’s the best pizza?”, “Does your taco spot have cabeza?”, or “What are we doing for dinner tonight?” is not a boring routine question, but a spark of inspiration and a call to action.

The two of us – this strange, unlikely couple – come from opposite ends of the earth. Only a few degrees of latitude and longitude separate our birthplaces of Huntsville, Alabama and Shanghai, China from being equidistant both east and west. Yet we have found in each other a familiarity in our cultures with how cuisine ties us to our roots and family. Food helps convey meaning beyond words between us, between family, between friends. We are fortunate to not only have our own past to inspire us but also the rich history of food culture in Chicago. However, when pressed with multicultural assimilation, do you surrender your own unique identity? Or do you retain your traditions while exploring the world from your own backyard?

It’s something to discuss over hashbrowns at 4am — or congee at 8am or over a bowl of homemade gumbo for dinner. We feel lucky to call the city of Chicago home. Its Midwest roots, immigrant influences, and American inventiveness never case to amaze us, or inspire us to cook and eat well. Hopefully that feeling will transfer to the written word here in this space and you, dear reader, will find that joy as well.