Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Maura Dwyer
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Throughout literary history, food has carried far more value than just sustenance. It is intertwined within the clashing cultures of the immigrant narrative, reflective of gender roles, and, most importantly, indicative of familial dynamics.
When I was in sixth grade, my mother wanted my sister and me to help out in the kitchen more, so she convinced us to cook dinner every Sunday night. She then began uploading our meals to Facebook. After a few well-received posts about our meals, she decided to expand them into a website, which, in many ways, painted the image of an ideal family. In fact, that wasn’t far from the truth ― everyone in my family genuinely looked forward to those Sundays.
The weekly meals also resulted in my sister and I greatly improving at cooking, developing signature dishes. My mother began to consider us chefs, allowing us to engage in grandiose purchases, such as splurging on sets of knives. Our newfound identities encouraged my mother to pursue the next level of our culinary careers: competitive cooking, namely competitive cooking shows.
From then on, a significant portion of my life revolved around securing a spot on a cooking show. As I spent more and more time preparing, my passion for cooking decreased. Thankfully, the number of children’s culinary shows is finite, and by eighth grade, my mother had thoroughly exhausted any possible availability, leading me to believe that we would return to the simplicity of Sunday dinners. My assumption was flipped one autumn afternoon, when my mother, filled with ecstatic shock, burst into my room, telling my sister and me that we had made it: we had qualified for Chopped Jr. Adrenaline quickly surged through my body as I struggled to come to terms with the truth; I would be competing as a chef on national television. While I did focus on cooking, it wasn’t my life. I had far greater priorities, such as soccer, video games, or my friends, all of which defined me better than cooking. Yet I wasn’t going to be on TV for any of those things; I would solely be portrayed through my identity in the kitchen, severely warping others’ perceptions of me. I would be subsequently known as a cook, even when I didn’t even consider myself one.
With only a few weeks till the competition, my sister and I upped our preparation by replicating the format exactly: three mystery ingredients, thirty minutes and three courses. Our previous chivalry in the kitchen was replaced by a hostile environment. Unlike our collaborative Sunday dinners, we were forced to directly compete against each other for a chance at $10,000.
Since I legally cannot state certain things about the filming process, I won’t dwell on the details of the set. By the end of the day, I had been Chopped™; after surviving the appetizer stage, I was eliminated in the entree round of the competition, outlasted by my sister and another nine-year-old girl. Following the competition, I seldom cooked. My passion had completely disappeared as I came to the realization that every one of my progressions of cooking was planned by my mother ― I never wanted to participate in Chopped; in fact, I never wanted to pursue anything in cooking. I solely wanted to make weekly dinners.
While food is often utilized within contemporary literature to illuminate the lengthening divide within a family, it is rarely the direct cause of disconnect; rather, it functions as a medium for communicating strife. In my personal experiences, food was the strife. Initially, cooking was great for my family, bringing us together every Sunday night. However, following my mother’s attempted monetization at our passion, cooking transformed from an enjoyable activity to a tremendous source of stress, depleting my sister and I’s former passion.
Now, the once lively Sunday night meals are now silent. All of us, plugged away into our devices, are only ever interrupted by the arrival of take out. The set of knives lay tucked away in the cupboard, accumulating dust in the cupboard, as my former passion crumbles.