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personal essay

My Family “Traveled” the World Last Year, Thanks to a New Monthly Tradition

published Mar 2, 2021
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According to my 2020 calendar, I was supposed to be on a flight in September to Barranquilla, Colombia, where I’d begin a two-month backpacking trip through South America with my best friend. Instead, like many other people, the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to stay inside my Orlando, Florida, home for most of the year. 

Around the same time I was supposed to get on that flight, I thumbed through my Instagram feed and came across a photo that caught my attention: It was an image of ensalada malagueña, a potato salad made of salt cod, olives, and oranges that’s native to southern Spain. The plate sat on a dining table adorned with a Spanish flag, a hand fan, and a print of a 15th century aristocrat. The photograph was taken by a local blogger who had been trying out recipes from different countries. I was inspired. If I wasn’t able to physically trek through Peru, Brazil, and Argentina, I could still journey through these countries — and more — through my tastebuds.

Two weeks later, I convinced my Puerto Rican family (in a pandemic bubble) to join me in swapping mofongo and arroz con habichuelas for international delicacies once a month — a feat that probably wouldn’t have been possible, particularly for my fussy father, if we weren’t in a months-long lockdown that prevented us from spending time together. If anything is capable of motivating my dad to temporarily suspend his picky food habits, it’s quality time with his offspring. So instead of family lunches at a lechonera after my nephew’s basketball games or my niece’s ballet classes, we’d gather for home-cooked global meals and experiences that each of us had a hand in preparing.   

First stop: Italy. As Dean Martin’s Volare, a song from my dad’s dinner playlist, set the mood, my 12-year-old nephew served us our drinks (cola and water) and read the handwritten menu, which included plant-based offerings so that I, the sole vegan, could savor the delicacies: Naples-inspired lasagne, vegan fettuccine Alfredo, arancini, plant-based bruschetta, cannoli, and tiramisu. Knowing what to expect, the eight of us lined up along the buffet-style kitchen island and scooped a taste of the Bel Paese onto our plates. We set our dishes on kid-made paper placemats that resembled Italy’s tricolor flag and enjoyed an evening of family and flavors of a faraway land we’ve never known. When our plates were empty, my nephew shared three facts with us about Italian history and culture, while my niece taught us one word in the country’s primary language — an educational component we add to all of our traveling dinners.

At the heart of the monthly international-themed potlucks is the intention to bring a family of four generations closer together, physically and spiritually. At the dinner table, we catch up. Elijah is considering returning to karate to get his black belt. J’amira is having trouble starting kindergarten online. We’re all grateful abuelo has recovered from his summer health scare. We also collaborate. Before the family suppers, we decide on a menu together and assign cooks for dishes and desserts. Post-meals, we vote on the next destination for our edible voyage. But most of all, we strengthen bonds through provisions, decorations, conversation, song, and dance — most notably with my soon-to-be teenage nephew, who, to my personal horror, is already preferring the company of friends over his once-favorite tía. Creating a family experience that is both enriching and fun — through new foods and the $30 tip he picks up for waiting the table — has helped us all enjoy time with an adolescent who’s entering a stage where he’s, simply, too cool for us.

Together, my boisterous Puerto Rican family members are also finally expanding their horizons. By the second month, when our taste buds made their way to Brazil, the dinners became more than a shared meal but also a way for my picky loved one to try new fares. At home, Puerto Rican grub is served seven days a week. The rare occurrence when spaghetti or lasagna is introduced, these Italian courses are given a boricua twist with a spoon of sofrito or a layer of maduros. But since initiating these monthly culinary excursions, my relatives have started implementing the plates to their weekly menus. At my brother’s house, his wife now cooks galinhada mineira, a Brazilian one-pot saffron rice with chicken, regularly. At my parents’ home, my mom now craves cheesy French onion soup pasta. All of us are also begging her to bake palmiers again. As the sole vegan in my family, these destination dinners have also provided my relatives with the opportunity to explore eats outside of their pork-heavy diets and, to their surprise, actually enjoy them.

While my family’s destination dinners started amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided this year to continue the tradition even when we’re no longer social distancing. These shared cultural meals and experiences don’t just feed my appetite for travel or relieve my relatives from pandemic ennui — they also bring my family closer together and help us create beautiful memories during a time of loss and suffering. Despite language barriers between an 84-year-old and his 4-year-old great-granddaughter, regardless of disagreements between parents and their children, and even with a pre-teen distancing himself more each day, we find joy and compassion at the dinner table — whether we’re breaking baguettes, naan, ciabatta, or pan sobao. 

I might not have made it to South America last year, but I tasted the flavors of Latin America, the Mediterranean, and Europe, and, more importantly, I felt the unconditional love of a grandfather, parents, siblings, and a nephew and niece. This month, we’ve booked a culinary trip to South Korea. Who knows where our appetites will take us next?