Crawford: How food helps me connect to my culture

Colin Crawford, Columnist

Growing up, I always had a passion for food, and I wasn’t shy about it. I’d ask time and time again to try something new off the entree menu. My grandma would laugh and comment on my long belly, a Caribbean equivalent of hungry eyes, but my adventurous tastes widened the scope of my palate. But above all else, nothing made me more satisfied than Grandma’s shrimp curry and roti. 

I long for it even now as I’m writing this piece. I can almost smell the tantalizing aroma of cumin and shrimp right in my dorm room. 

My mom is West Indian by way of Guyana, a tiny South American country that identifies more with the Caribbean than South America. Spending the majority of my life in South Florida, where a good portion of my family had settled after immigrating, it was never hard for me to feel close to my culture. It was right there: I was living in it. Every time we had a lime, which means a hang out, there’d be music, people and obviously food too. Since I came to Evanston, learning to connect to my community without physically being there has been trying. 

College is the first time I’ve been away from home for so long and it’s made me realize I was closer to my family and my culture than I had previously known. Nothing made this more apparent than food. I suddenly had not just a craving, but a need for Guyanese food to ground me and make me feel less homesick. 

In Guyana, there are six peoples or ethnic groups: the Indo-Guyanese, the Afro-Guyanese, the European Guyanese, the Portuguese Guayanese, the Amerindian and the Chinese Guyanese. My grandmother says in Guyana everyone knows how to make everything, so regardless of race or ethnicity, everyone is part of the same culture. Although my family is not Chinese, because of our heritage we still make fried rice and chow mein. 

I am trying to embrace the culinary aspect of being Guyanese by learning how to make traditional dishes, like curry and roti, cookup rice and dahl. But it’s impossible to maintain my skills without having the right ingredients or space to make food. 

Before my family came to campus for Family Weekend during fall quarter, I begged them to bring some Guyanese pastries because I knew that eating them would make me feel less alone. The Caribbean community on campus is miniscule and CaribNation, the Caribbean identity student affinity group, is inactive. Food was how I maintained my cultural identity at home, and I am trying to replicate that to the best of my ability here at Northwestern. 

Of course, my parents acquiesced and the elation derived from that first chomp of pine tart is still unmatched. But it was soon mixed with anxiety and dread. What am I going to do when I feel like this again? I knew I couldn’t rely on my family to fly up and bring my Caribbean goodies every month.

I realized that whenever I missed home, all I had to do was find some kind of food to remind me of my roots, whether it was scouring the candy aisle in Target for some tamarind chews or ginger mints, or heaping fried plantains onto my plate on those blessed days they’re on the Allison dining hall’s menu. I actively look for ways to consume familiar foods and flavors to feel like I am not so out of place. 

I know it’s only the third week of the quarter, but I’m already excited to be back home surrounded by the scents and spices of Guyana once more. 

Colin Crawford is a Medill first-year. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.