Meals were never a big deal at my house. While many families consider mealtimes a way to bond, during my childhood, my parents and I mostly rummaged through the kitchen to see what we could find and ate separately. It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy food at all, or that we didn’t spend enough time together as a family. Making home cooked meals together was just never a priority.
When we ate out—which we did frequently—we often visited the same restaurants and didn’t explore many cuisines. My exposure to different foods was limited to American, Italian, Japanese, and, of course, the typical foods from my hometown: Mexicali, where traditional northern Mexican and Chinese foods coexist.
But my thoughts about food immediately changed during my first fall semester at Penn—now three years ago. Some of the best memories from my first year are not at frat parties, downtowns, or even late nights at friends' dorms. Many of them occurred at Hill House Dining Hall.
I never looked forward to the food—it wasn't the best. Nevertheless, I always eagerly left class to go to the dining hall and see my friends. The sight must have been almost ridiculous: a rotation of ten to 15 Latin American first years chattering in Spanish around a long table, the group changing as people left for class and others joined. At times, we would spend up to two hours at Hill, talking about our days, checking to see whether the garlic knots were ready, getting second helpings of frosted flakes, and taking multiple chocolate chip cookies from the jar at the dessert station.
During my first year, the dining hall was the place where I laughed the most, sometimes until my belly hurt. Case in point: the time a friend told us about taking care of a tipsy first year and his dog. Another: when one of the dining hall workers called out my now–roommate for getting servings of two different kinds of potatoes, prompting an iconic rant. And one more: witnessing two of my friends who, desperate for freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, snuck behind the counter to get their hands on a batch and got caught.
Of course, not all of my memories of Hill were great times. Most of the drama that seemed earth shattering to 18–year–olds was shared through hushed conversations over bowls from the Global Fusion Station. I remember exactly what I was eating when I stressed out about my first failed midterm, when I told a friend about my first crush at Penn, and when I consoled someone after a particularly hard day.
Throughout the year, the number of people sitting around the table changed as our large group inevitably began to break off into smaller ones. Even then, through good times and bad, the dining hall was where I reinforced friendships with those whom I now consider family.
Eventually, we all moved off campus and started cooking at our own apartments. Initially, I feared that, without the common ground of Hill, I wouldn’t see my friends during the week. After all, we study different things and don’t take classes in the same buildings—or even similar areas of campus.
Although I initially saw my friends less, we made it a priority to continue to get together. And what better way to do so than by sharing food?
At first, I simply tagged along as my friends made it their mission to try as many Philly restaurants as possible. But soon I found myself getting excited by the idea of trying new places as well, even eating dishes I would never have eaten before. Our special occasions are now always defined by restaurants: brunch for a 22nd birthday at Café La Maude, dinners with parents at Double Knot, K’Far picnics at Rittenhouse Square, or Pizzeria Vetri when friends from home are visiting.
My favorite food moments aren't necessarily those at fancy restaurants. The days when we cook together and share a meal at home are just as special—if not more. Through their preferences and customs, I've been able to learn so much from my friends. One of them (who was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, mind you) taught me that food is one of the most special gifts you can give to someone, and it’s true.
Even though my friends aren’t chefs—with the one exception—they have all shown me their love through food in one way or another. One of them made me hummus when he found out I had never tried it. Another makes me coffee when I need some energy—or tea when I have to relax. When I lost a loved one recently, a plate of cookies was waiting for me outside my door. Even the simplest of snacks are meaningful, like the guacamole and chips my roommate uses to lift my spirits when I'm down.
It wasn’t until this year, our senior year, that I started to reflect on what these moments mean to me. Meals are no longer about eating in a rush, or even about the flavor. They're about spending time with the people I love. Even with all of my other incredible memories at Penn, what I’ll miss the most will be sitting around the table and sharing food with my great friends.