emories are rooted in the senses. Sights, sounds and especially tastes serve as time machines that transport us to ephemeral yet significant moments in our lives: the rush you felt when you first drank green apple Smirnoff in somebody’s basement, the regret that overcame you as you slurped escargot with an underwhelming date you wished would disappear, the dryness that accumulated in your mouth as you stress-ate pretzels before asking for your first raise.
Sensory memories like these — of thrill, dread, shit-your-pants intimidation — are akin to vivid flashbulb memories stored in the brain, only to be recalled when prompted unexpectedly. But memories associated with a grand emotion like love seem to build more slowly. They begin as inconsequential heartstrings in our chests and wind themselves into weighted balls of emotion over time.
For my sister and me, a food that represents unconditional familial love is pastina, a tiny star-shaped pasta that my mom would prepare for us whenever we fell ill. It was a silky, rich elixir containing an ungodly amount of butter and Parmesan cheese that could numb aches and pains (even those of a broken heart) as it dissolved into our mouths by the heaping spoonful. As we’ve gotten older, my sister and I have reciprocated the sentiment of pastina by making it for our mom or dad when they’ve felt under the weather. And now, even when we’re in good health and fully capable of making it ourselves, we’ll still occasionally ask mom to make it for us, because “love food” must have an author. It must be completely selfless. Rare is it that we give ourselves the amount of butter and cheese that we deserve.
In celebration of love in all its incredible and edible manifestations, I asked 17 people to describe one food that evokes a deep sensation of warm fuzzies in their hearts and in their stomachs. Make this party a potluck dinner by sharing your “love food” in the comments sections, too.
“Every year after the first day of school, my siblings and I would arrive home to the aroma of freshly baked boxed brownies made by our mom. Fancy, I know, but mom had her unique substitutions that would make these brownies extra indulgent. Instead of using 1/2 cup of vegetable oil, she’d only use 1/4 cup of the oil plus 1/4 cup of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. She’d also add an entire bag of Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips to the batter. I’m pretty sure nothing smells more like ‘I love you’ than chocolatey brownies to me!”
“Spam, as in the canned cooked meat that resembles a tiny gelatinous meatloaf, is a staple in our household. Our dad makes it in the morning with bacon and eggs, but our favorite way to cook it is on the grill during a barbecue in the summer. It reminds us of father-daughter camping trips together. My sister Danielle is getting married later this month, and there will surely be plenty of Spam singles at the reception. Maybe we’ll even splurge and get the cheese-infused kind since it’s a special occasion.”
“I was lucky to have grown up in a household in which both of my parents liked to cook. Each of their signature dishes is an expression of how they pass on their own mothers’ love: my mom with ‘Grandma Kathleen’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ and my dad with ‘Granny’s Never-Fail Chocolate Sauce’ (he still has the recipe on a small card in her handwriting). They make these dishes every year for the holidays or whenever comfort food is high in demand.
The chocolate sauce requires a bit of patience at the stove, but it’s rewarding in its straightforward and unfussy manner that provides a sweet endorphin rush. Kathleen’s mac ‘n’ cheese is a savory concoction with an unapologetically high caloric value, containing layers of sharp white cheddar cheese, baby bella mushrooms, and elbow macaroni (only the large size will do). Though Grandma Kathleen passed away before I was born, I know that we would have been great friends based on this dish alone.”
“When my mom was young, her Aunt Mary would take her to a local bakery just to buy a seven-layer cake for the two of them to share when she came to visit from out of state. One-on-one time with Aunt Mary was a rarity for my mom because she was one of eight children, and eating this cake became one of her most treasured childhood memories. My mom passed away four years ago, but while she was still alive, she would celebrate the best days and provide comfort during the worst with Aunt Mary’s favorite seven-layer cake from the bakery of her childhood. We ate so much of it together, and tears come to my eyes as I hold my newborn daughter and think about all of the slices we’ll enjoy together as she grows older while keeping the memory of my mom and her aunt alive.”
“Dhal puri, a delicate West Indian flatbread filled with ground split peas and served with potato curry is a meal that tastes like home, history and love to me. Dhal puri is usually reserved for special occasions and the process to make it is labor-intensive, so I have many childhood memories of helping the women in my family make large batches of it for a wedding or a holiday.
This savory and satisfying meal requires my full attention. Tearing off the right amount of puri and pairing it with just enough curry so I’m left with equal amounts of both at the very end is a tedious task, but the hardest part is making sure I don’t get dhal crumbs everywhere!”
“My mom’s pesto tastes like love because it’s made with fresh basil from my dad’s vegetable garden in the summer. August, my birthday month, is when she makes it the most because dad’s basil is overgrown and we need to make good use of it. I have fond memories of helping my mom prepare this dish by climbing on our counter to take down boxes of De Cecco brand pasta, whether it was spaghetti, linguine or farfalle. Now, she makes it for me whenever I go home — even if it’s winter — because I’m not always home in August. Her winter pesto doesn’t taste exactly the same when it’s not made with my dad’s basil, but it’s the thought that counts.”
“When I think of food that tastes like love, I think of my grandpa’s ‘Irish macaroni’ that he made whenever I would come to visit. It’s basically just pasta shells topped with tomato soup, a melted mixture of American cheese and whole milk, and a dusting of oregano on top. It’s believed that my grandpa assumed ownership of this recipe because my grandma is super-Italian and he wanted a signature Irish-inspired dish of his own. It’s definitely the coziest meal, and it tastes even better if you eat it cold the next day!”
“I scream ‘I LOVE YOU’ at any food that’s made especially for me, but I think the meal that brought me the most joy was toast, orange Gatorade and Advil that my best friend delivered to me one morning after a heavy night of drinking. She knew that I’d be hungover and figured that bread would soak up any liquor left inside of me. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.”
“My grandma had an old Swedish cookie recipe called pepparkakor that she used to make around the holidays and occasionally for non-festive visits to our house. Grandma would always make a big fuss about how my mother never bothered to learn the recipe from her, so I made them once to try to understand my mom’s salty perspective. I quickly learned how hard and time-consuming the process is! You have to make the dough one day before you bake so it can set overnight. Then you have to stamp out super-thin cookies one by one. That trial run was all the proof I needed to know that our grandma truly loved us.”
“Classic Italian chicken cutlets have held a warm place in my heart ever since I first learned how to make them by helping my mom in the kitchen. Using the method that she taught me, I take large chicken breasts and pound them until they’re roughly 1/2-inch thick. Then I coat each cutlet with flour, dredge it in egg wash, and coat it in Italian breadcrumbs (never panko) until they’re all breaded. A secret here is to incorporate Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese to the breadcrumbs to add an extra layer of flavor. I fry them in vegetable oil until they’re golden brown before moving them to paper towels, which absorb any excess oil. At that point, the aroma of chicken cutlets fills our home for the rest of the day.
My teenage sons have helped me make them ever since they were young in hopes that they can make them for their families when they get older. They made me promise to send them chicken cutlets in their college care packages because it’s the one food that means ‘home’ to us no matter where we are.”
“Tacos hold a special place in my heart because my boyfriend and I had our first date at a local taco spot and made our relationship official two months later over another plate of tacos at a different restaurant. Now that we’ve been together for six months, he knows this about me and will have tacos and a margarita waiting for me at home after an exhausting day of work. They’re just simple ground beef tacos with run-of-the-mill toppings, but he knows that they comfort me like no other food can.”
“When I was still in graduate school, I drove three hours to go home for dinner one night after an especially hard week of class to spend quality time with my family. Mom said she was making pulled pork, slaw and jalapeño polenta, and I was skeptical because, at that point in time, she had only made pulled pork for us a few times. She was still trying to master the recipe. Little did I know there’s nothing like a slow-cooked slab of meat made with a mother’s touch to boost the spirit of a grad student after they realize they have so much to learn before they can change the world.”
“When I was young, I’d sit in my bed at night and wait until my dad passed my doorway to ask him for chocolate milk. I always asked him instead of my mom because I knew that he was secretly a push-over and would get it for me to keep me from getting out of bed for the hundredth time. He’d add the perfect amount of Hershey’s chocolate syrup to skim milk until it turned a rich shade of brown and occasionally serve it with a spoon so that I could get all the syrup.”
“My grandma always had Werther’s hard caramel candies in a dish by the door, and now I can’t eat one without thinking of her!”
“Almost every Monday night in our family’s household is gravy night (and yes, we call it ‘gravy,’ not ‘sauce’). My dad taught my mom how to make gravy when they were first married, but now she is the one who usually makes it for us. She takes creative liberty with each batch. It always tastes slightly different based on the combo of herbs and spices she chooses, and sometimes she’ll add sausage, meatballs or pork chops to make things interesting. We eat it with pasta and, like all meals in our family, it’s prefaced with our prayer: ‘Bless our family, bless our food, bless our times together.'”
“Nothing says ‘I love you’ more than when someone brings you homemade chicken noodle soup when you’re sick. It shows that they truly care about you and your well-being! My favorite chicken noodle soup is my mom’s, which she makes from scratch with thin egg noodles. (I think the egg noodles make the soup.) It’s one of the few things she actually cooks, and it’s delicious.”
“My mom was never much of a baker, but one dessert she owned was gingerbread cookies with icing that she made with my brother and me for Christmas. She’d make the dough, and then my brother and I would watch her carefully roll it out on the table. We picked out the cookie cutters we loved the most, dusted their sharp metal edges with flour, and sunk them into the dough before lining them up on a tray. After they baked, I’d spend ages decorating the cookies to perfection with homemade icing. We’ve made them together every year since I was a toddler, and I hope to carry on this tradition as I grow older!”
Illustrations by Pauline de Roussy de Sales.