“The food doesn’t matter, really,” writes Amanda Hesser, New York Times food editor, in her book “Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table.” “What it evokes does.” 

Hesser is, of course, referring to one of food’s most enchanting properties: its ability to conjure memory. A good meal succinctly combines all five senses, giving your brain multiple avenues to recall said meal. We eat a meal three times a day, granting us three chances to ground ourselves in the moment — or brood on the next. But nevertheless, it offers us the chance to slow down and harbor more enduring memories of the time, place and sentiment in which the meal is being consumed. Food is often a central part of a larger event or celebration. How do you celebrate Christmas? Your birthday? A first date, even? Food is likely one of the first things that comes up in all these hallmarks: a nexus of culture, tradition, family and survival. It sits at the center of awkward family reunions, middle school lunch periods, football games and job orientations. Friends and family bring home-cooked meals to the bereaved. A cake is cut at a wedding. Throughout it all, eating grounds us in the moments we live through. 

Katherine McCabe / Daily Nexus

I did not know that my last meal with my dad would be my last meal with my dad. At the time, I lived and worked about three hours away from my family in Sacramento. Getting only one day off a week, I seldom used it to make the commute there and back, but one day in August I did. I texted my family ahead of time, making sure my mom could run to the store to pick up some groceries for our dinner. It always went like this: Between timing and travel logistics, we also planned ahead so I could cook something special with my family while visiting. This time she picked up an assortment of our usual veggies as well as some crisp bok choy. We shared a stir-fry, the four of us: my mom, dad, brother and I. It was another (I say this humbly!) quite delicious meal to pocket as a cherished memory with family. Following my dad’s leukemia diagnosis last year, I knew each moment together must be treasured, that the extra effort was worth it, was necessary. I hugged him goodbye early the next morning and left for work. He suffered a brain hemorrhage hours later. He died in the intensive care unit that weekend. 

The mercy of cancer, to many, is its slowness. If you are given six months to live, that’s six months — give or take — to make arrangements, say goodbyes. Everyone knows what they’re in for. We were denied such mercy. My dad’s cancer was not terminal, a treatment plan was still in place, we still had a hypothetical future to still cling to. Our time spent together did have an extra impetus to be treasured, but lacked finality. It felt like some kind of cosmic gift, or pure, gracious coincidence, that the one day I visited home was our last day with my dad. That I could hug him, laugh with him, tell him about my day one last time — that we are sharing that final meal, now and forever. 

The whole two years of my dad’s battle with cancer was marked by these special moments at the table. Between waves of grief I find comfort knowing that it ended with one. When my dad was first diagnosed, I made the decision to move back home to be with him. His first hospital stay was in January 2021 — a sudden implosion of our worlds made worse by pandemic-induced visiting restrictions, an extended round of chemo and complications with infections. When he finally came home, more than a month had passed. His discharge day was pushed back again and again, until finally I drove white-knuckled to the hospital to pick him up on Valentine’s Day, and our family, whole again, shared a meal of bright pink, buttery beet gnocchi. I remember the give of the dough beneath my hands. I remember the giddy sprint of our Rottweiler upon seeing my dad at the door. I remember the crackle of fried sage, the salty tang of freshly shaved parmesan. I remember seeing my mom cry for the first time since her mom had passed. Moments were suspended, infinite, distilled — all over a single meal.

Of course, you can’t talk about food without discussing where it comes from. Taking interest in environmental justice and agricultural reform is often a depressing endeavor, given the precariousness of our food system in the face of climate change, abysmal farm labor conditions and our rapidly depleting topsoil, just to name a few. The effects of our broken food system are deep and far-reaching, and more than anything, urgent. I prefer not to think about the provenance of my dad’s cancer, but it doesn’t ease my mind that our ubiquitous processed foods are associated with a higher cancer risk; that the groundwater in the Sacramento Valley is both dwindling and contaminated; that glyphosate, a widely used herbicide, has been directly linked to leukemia. I am reminded of this daily by my targeted Instagram ads (“Do you or a loved one have Leukemia or Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma? You may be entitled to financial compensation in the Monsanto Roundup lawsuit. No fee until you win!”). I don’t claim that any of these things are responsible for what happened to my dad, but there are certainly many casualties of our convoluted and reckless food system. Whether or not you can instantly connect any dots to your personal victimhood doesn’t matter. My dad isn’t the reason I became involved in food justice, but I do think it honors his memory to do work that I think is important. When I think of my dad — the things he taught me, meals we shared, of my love for him, for my family, for my community — I think of how fiercely and desperately I believe in a better world. 

Sitting with my dad in the ICU before he passed, we cried, exchanged stories and did our best to comfort each other. No one in my family strictly follows any particular religion, though some of us, myself included, identify vaguely as spiritual. So, my dad is still with us always. Or we’ll see him again. Or something like that.

“I remember reading that with each breath you take, in the billions and billions of molecules, you’re inhaling at least some of the same air as Albert Einstein did,” my uncle mused, about my dad’s continued permanence on the planet. 

“I read the same thing about Leonardo da Vinci,” my brother laughed.

“I read the same thing about Shakespeare,” I said and squeezed my dad’s hand. 

In “How to Eat,” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“Our Ancestors Are in the Soil”

That nut, fruit, vegetable, or grain that you eat

has pulled up nutrition from the soil in order

to grow. In the soil are many people who

have died, have been transformed, and have

become part of the soil. Maybe in this mouthful

of rice are also the bones of many hundreds

of generations as well as many dead leaves,

worms, and animals’ bones. Maybe in a previous

 life you had been there and died there,

and your own bones have disintegrated in that

land. During the time of eating, your practice

is to look deeply into that grain of rice and

enjoy all that has gone into its creation. There

are so many things to enjoy and to discover in

each bite.”

It seems a little macabre at first, but isn’t it also incredible? It’s incredible that we can ascribe beauty in this world so boundlessly, that my dad, that our loved ones, are quite literally still with us in their basest forms, circling the globe as carbon or oxygen or a grain of rice. It seems too good to be true! All this love, our history, our ancestors, are all endlessly accumulating and cycling through each part of this world. In death we are then permitted to give back. The thought of returning to the kitchen, to our dining table, now set with only four plates, the devastating absence at the head of the table: It feels impossible at first. It is a head-on collision with grief. But through this it becomes a medium of memory, an opportunity not just to grieve but to remember and reconnect. 

A few days after he passed, my dad’s friend sent us pictures of him. In my favorite one they are sharing a meal, and my dad is grinning enormously and holding up a half-eaten burger like a prized catch. The picture is a live photo. I press down on my phone screen. He is shaking from the apparent pressure of holding in a laugh, keeping it together long enough for the moment to be captured. My dad is smiling, rosy-cheeked and still alive. Each time I sit down for a meal, I get to remember him this way.