Food had always been the focal point of our relationship. It started with the first time we met: an orientation-style meetup with everyone in the hall of our freshman dorm. We were asked to go around one by one and say our name, along with the fruit or vegetable that best described us and why. I cringed. I’d always hated these types of get-to-know-you games, probably because I’m not very good at them.
When my turn came, unable to think of anything remotely clever, I blurted out, “I’m an orange because I’m from Florida!” It didn't go over terribly. It seemed, at least, that everyone else in the room was in the same psychological boat: nervous and awkwardly cheerful. Forced laughter.
He, on the other hand, was easily self-assured, barely fazed by the pressure of looking witty or cool. With a sweet, sly grin, he said, “I’m a mushroom ‘cause I’m a fun-guy.” Everybody laughed—for real this time. And in a room full of prospective friends, I immediately knew I wanted to be his.
It didn’t take long. We were naturally drawn to each other, and our shared love of food sealed the deal. I grew up in a household that often went out to eat (no complaints here), and since we couldn’t cook in the dorm, I’d bring him along with me to try new restaurants or explore San Francisco’s many culinary offerings.
Back on campus, I became enamored of the South Indian food his parents would occasionally drop off on the weekends: a crunchy, spicy snack mix called “mixture”; yellow lentil dal more comforting than chicken soup; and a rice pilaf with tangy raita that quickly became my favorite. By that point, I was pretty enamored of him, too.
One night, about six months later, we were hanging out with a few friends in his room. He quietly passed me a yellow sticky note with the words “I love you” written on it. I was stunned. I knew that I felt it too, but had never seriously said (or written) those words to anyone other than my parents. We softly locked eyes; he gave me that familiar grin. And that was it.
Still, it was complicated. He was explicitly not supposed to be dating anyone (let alone a girl who wasn’t Indian), and wasn’t too sure he was ready for a relationship anyway, so for a while we were “just friends.” But we all know how that story goes, right? Over the course of three years, we had progressed from “just friends,” to more than just friends, to not friends at all (that part really sucked), and finally, together.
By the fall of senior year, we were a couple. Sure, neither of our parents knew yet (his were kept in the dark out of fear, mine out of sanity), but that was O.K. It was then, of course, that the reality of untethered adulthood (aka, the end of college), started to cave in on us. I hadn’t decided exactly what my plan was at that point, but I was strongly leaning toward moving to New York City to pursue a career in media; he seemed intent on staying in the Bay Area near his family to become an engineer (even though he’d much rather be a pilot).
Everything was up in the air.
So we cooked. A lot. It had been our favorite thing to do together ever since we had actual kitchens to work in—sophomore year, when we ditched campus housing for apartments just a few blocks away from each other (by no means a coincidence).
We cooked through countless recipes: sweet corn polenta with eggplant sauce, many iterations of macaroni and cheese (our signature), an almost-perfect French omelet, and a two-hour braised onion pasta that still makes me smile at its simple genius. Or, we’d riff on whatever ingredients we could find at the farmers market or local grocery store.
One Friday night, our cravings were strong and in sync: enchiladas. Neither of us had made them before and they seemed easy enough, so why not make them ourselves? We found a recipe online (here, in fact) and made an unusually speedy run to the store. Our shared hunger prevented us from casually browsing in between the shopping list, as we often would. We had a plan: enchiladas. We got back to my place and immediately set to work.
The rest is kind of a blur.
But I know it was something, or rather a series of small, pointed things, that I said. It might have been a case of severe backseat cooking, or maybe I started to subtly (and eventually, ruthlessly) nitpick over the “mess” (it was most likely not a mess) he was making. I don’t know. All I know is that I started it, and before the roasted vegetables could be blitzed into a sauce with the sour cream and spices, we were screaming at each other for the first time. About what? Probably nothing, really. Probably because I was scared of where we’d be this time next year: not together.
I stormed five steps into my bedroom, which was conveniently located right next to the kitchen, to do a bit of self-indulgent crying into my pillow. I kept the door slightly cracked; he continued working silently in the kitchen. I heard the blender whiz, the oven door open and close, and the baking trays clang around as they were retrieved from the bottom cabinet.
Then, I smelled the enchiladas.
As the aroma of the blistered red bell peppers and pungent garlic crept into my room, I fought every greedy muscle in my stomach to stay put. I heard the oven door open and close again. They were done, and I was close to cracking. But before I could, he walked in, stone-faced, and set a plate down on the bench in front of my bed. Neither of us said a word. He walked out and closed the door, but not all the way; I could still see him through the crack, eating his own plate alone in the living room. I stared down at the hot enchiladas and for a minute wasn’t even hungry anymore.
Eventually, I took a bite.
They were perfect. The fragrant, earthy sauce was balanced by the spice of jalapeño and the brightness of cilantro; the little blobs of semi-melted queso fresco added a soft, creamy saltiness. It only took me a few minutes to finish the plate, but by the time I did, he had already left.
Two or three days went by before we spoke again, but we quickly bounced back. Graduation came and went, and all the things we were afraid would happen did. I moved to New York, and he still hasn’t left California.
Through it all, even the distance, we’ve stayed together. We even told our parents (his took it well, and mine constantly pry). Just a few days ago we talked about the enchilada incident for the first time in almost two years. He laughed. We still don’t know what caused it. It’s been almost four months since we last saw each other, and I’ve been craving them lately. I haven’t been able to bring myself to make them yet, though. I don’t want to make them alone.
Maybe I’ll wait until the next time he visits to give them another go. If we can make it through four years of college, two years of long distance, and a cultural semi-divide, I’m sure we can survive these enchiladas. Then again, it might be safer to just order takeout.
- 3 red bell peppers, cut into 4 large pieces, seeds and stem removed
- 2 zucchini squash, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 2 yellow squash, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1/2 yellow onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 1 medium jalapeño, cut in half, seeded and stem removed
- 2 whole cloves garlic, skin on
- olive oil for drizzling
- 8 ounces light sour cream
- 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped, divided
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- salt and pepper
- 6-7 corn tortillas
- 1 cup queso fresco, crumbled (if not available, you could use chevre or Monterey Jack cheese)