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This Is Not a Review of Bryan Washington’s "Family Meal"
Call it an appreciation?
Freshman year at Berkeley a guy on my floor, Tony Murillo, invited Joe, Mark, and myself to eat at his family’s place up in Rodeo. It was Sunday afternoon. Tony said his mom cooked every Sunday, and anybody who wanted to just drops in and eats and hangs out. Did we want to go check it out?
Tony was hilarious—the funniest guy on our floor—and the four of us had bonded that semester: smoking super-potent devil weed that this strange bio major down the hall, Carl Schoofs, grew in his room under lights and would let us spark while he stayed sober, watching us like we were rats in some kind of science experiment, or maybe Carl felt he needed to be there to reel us in if we tried to do anything too stupid, high on his weed.
I could tell Tony was self-conscious about his invitation to meet his family: he made self-deprecating jokes all the time about being the only Mexican guy on our floor, which was all white boys like Mark, Joe, and me, plus this cluster of Asian guys from the city who hung out in Greg Tsukahara’s room. They’d get stoned at the opposite end of the hall from us and jam out to Heatwave, dropping the needle again and again on “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line.” On Sunday, the four of us packed into Tony’s car and drove up I-80 to Rodeo.
Tony’s dad worked on trucks, and they lived above his garage, which was more like a dusty yard lined with tool sheds, parked with a couple of tractor units with the engines exposed. We walked up the back steps, and Tony’s mom was at the kitchen table with some ladies and Tony’s sister Monica. Tony introduced us, and we grabbed plates and helped ourselves from a huge pot on the stove full of pinto beans at that nice stage between thick and soupy, next to another pot of tomato-tinted rice, next to a warmer stacked with tortillas. We took our plates down to the yard where Tony’s dad was grilling meat, surrounded by men and boys, keeping close to the grill and the cooler of beers, some of which Tony liberated.
I don’t even remember the meat, since all of the energy at that week’s Murillo spread was coming from those beans. I know now that what made them so good was the taste of real lard—fat with the frizzled lusciousness of rendered pork: carnitas meat. We went back upstairs for more, and by then other people, friends and neighbors, had filtered in through the kitchen door and were talking and laughing, angling with plates and bowls. Even in a crowd, there was an intimacy of scale, a joy in just crowding around that I’d never really been exposed to in my life in a white suburb.
I thought of that Sunday in Rodeo early this morning, after finishing Bryan Washington’s latest, Family Meal. This is probably the most Bryan-ish food memory I have. In his novels, and especially his new one, food is sticky. By which I mean it’s a pornographic fantasy to fetishize a dish or a meal as being free of context; that it could be a recipe separated from labor or emotion—from story: a table shot from above, foods and plates but no people; no past; no attachments. No fear, bitterness, boredom, panic, or regret.
Family Meal is in the voices of three queer characters: Cam, his boyfriend Kai, and Cam’s nonblood brother, TJ. Jin and Mae, TJ’s culturally mixed birth parents (and Cam’s adoptive ones), own a bakery in The Heights, a gentrifying, rapidly de-queering Houston neighborhood. For much of the book, the grind to keep this business running is background noise you can’t tune out. And I’m not giving out spoilers, but among Bryan’s greatest gifts as a writer is his ability to nail voice; the way he folds his characters’ voices over and around each other like the layers in croissant dough (see how I did that). It makes it so you can almost feel the novel’s spirit, which, as Cam says near the end of the book, “It’s our responsibility to take care of each other.”
Taking care of each other is what we in the LGBTQ2SIA+ family do; what we’ve always done, and it’s always been hard; always messy. Yet Family Meal jerked me out of my own clichés about intentional family; led me instead into nuanced episodes of accepting and resisting love and nurturing. It’s a book about how we press into community and how community presses into us; about family as the truth we can’t escape even when we run; even when we try to obliterate ourselves. And sadly—tragically—we queers have always been good at punishing ourselves. At hiding from ourselves, even as we show up for each other. In that sense (and another), Family Meal is a ghost story.
Which brings me to Mrs. Murillo’s beans. When I started pitching stories and writing about food, whenever I’d flash on that Sunday in Rodeo I’d think of those beans as recipe fodder. Maybe I’d try reverse-engineering a recipe based on my decades-old memory; set it in a little narrative of whatever was going on in Rodeo: family, generosity, tradition, culture, whatever—done. The conventional food writing thing.
I always balked, though.
And I think that happened because I never really allowed myself to understand the story. That showing up with Tony to his parents’ place began a narrative that I was inescapably part of. How Tony’s sister Monica liked me, and we actually went on a date after that Sunday, because she was nice, and we both liked books, and I was closeted and terrified to not play along at being straight. And how we all—Tony and his girlfriend, Joe, Mark, Monica, and I—how we all packed into a couple of cars and caravaned to Yosemite for a weekend, pretty much on a whim. And how, after I discovered that I forgot to grab my bag with a change of clothes, it was Joe who let me wear his. And weeks later it was just Joe and I who left Berkeley on an urge: “borrowed” his grandma’s car and beers from her fridge plus some of Carl Schoofs’ devil weed and drove north to camp someplace but without having a destination and ended up outside Guerneville. We jumped a fence and spent the night in an apple orchard, only Joe “forgot” his sleeping bag, and it was freezing so we bundled together in mine. And I was wayyy too fucking stupid to realize what was actually going on: that I was an alien in my own feelings. We spooned with hard-ons and never mentioned it.
To say that those beans were some kind of invitation to accept being part of a story bigger than myself; to accept that truth is the foundation of care—maybe that’s going too far. Maybe it isn’t.
But this fantasy that you can just pluck a dish out of some bigger, ongoing narrative. Family Meal reminded me of the artificial nature of that—how it distorts, yields easy resolutions that strip out nuance: difficult or conflicting feelings. Contradictions. The truth.
So a nice wrapped-up recipe piece about Mrs. Murrillo’s beans would have been a lie on several levels, the main one being an implication that the story of a Sunday in Rodeo had achieved some kind of resolution about the power of food to bring people together, instead of planting a seed that would someday break trough as total bafflement about who the hell I was and how I needed to live. Because (plot twist) I was the ghost in this story. #