“What do people like you eat?” my friends ask me with curiosity.
Although plant-based nutrition is having a moment in Europe, people who eat no animal products still aren’t all that common. My curious culinary proclivities are a source of much amusement often likened to the eating habits of various animals. To wit, birds (I eat seeds), rabbits (I eat veggies), and squirrels (I eat nuts, lots of nuts, so many nuts my friends have to hide theirs when I’m around).
For anyone who still thinks vegans survive on leaves, fat is my favorite food group and olive oil is my favorite drink.
And my habit of covering most dishes with something that looks like yellow dandruff always foxes unsuspecting onlookers, too. Nutritional yeast may look weird but it is delicious although do steer clear if you have a cold and are prone to sneezing lest things should get a little messy before you’ve had a chance to mix it.
On my first night in Amsterdam, dinner was a puzzle my friends were keen to solve before everything closed so off we went to the grocery store.
Among the boxed salads meant as a meal, I found one I would come to love because of everything it represented then and will always represent.
Food is a huge part of my cultural identity.
While we French take great pleasure in living up to the cliché with a cuisine and culinary techniques renowned the world over, we’re far from alone. For example, food is also a central part of life in Portugal, one of my many former homes and a country whose cuisine and culture both deserve to be better known. And the Dutch aren’t left behind either.
In fact, each of the 28 member EU states has a rich culinary heritage and there’s nothing we love more than sitting down to a good meal prepared from scratch from fresh, healthful ingredients. Farmers’ markets aren’t a hipster thing here but part of our way of life, even in the suburbs.
In the case of France and Portugal, we can spend hours around the table with our loved ones, eating, drinking, laughing, and putting the world to rights.
On a day to day basis, the evening meal is the time when most families and couples come together, check in with one another, and relax. While weekday meals are often simple, it isn’t what we eat that matters most but togetherness and conversation.
This is exactly what happened the day I got a boxed salad from the supermarket. Unremarkable though the combination of spinach, quinoa, edamame, carrot, and nuts in a spicy dressing may sound, it tasted like heaven.
Because it epitomized progress unthinkable a year before, so unthinkable that being in Amsterdam on that one night in June felt like a miracle.
Had anyone told me a year ago I’d wind up in the Netherlands, I wouldn’t have believed it. And had anyone told me then I’d be staying with people who have been holding my hand through thick and thin for months now, I’d have shaken my head no.
It was impossible; such events were beyond my wildest imaginings.
While in the throes of incapacitating depression that stole five years of my life, I was so isolated all I wanted to do was die.
Eating boxed supermarket salad in Amsterdam marked a stark departure from everything that came before.
The minute I put a forkful in my mouth and started chewing, it became symbolic of a rebirth I’ve been celebrating ever since.
For me, eating has always been a mindful pursuit: For however long the meal lasts, I focus on the people around me and the food. This is why my appetite is the first thing to go when I’m distraught; I have great difficulty eating when my mental health takes a nose dive.
In such cases, food simply won’t go down and all I can ingest is liquids, which still cause extreme digestive distress. I force them down, they often don’t stay there, it’s a mess.
But that night was so full of unbridled joy and laughter the boxed salad acquired the same mythical dimension as an exceptional meal from a starred chef. It was delicious, the perfect combination of crunchy, soft, salty, sweet, and spicy fresh ingredients.
My first Dutch meal in nearly two decades — I used to live and work in Amsterdam in the early aughts — was a revelation. It was at this precise moment that I understood I had finally come back to life.
What’s more, for the first time in years, I had the absolute certainty of being in the right place.
Everything felt possible then and still feels possible now, which is no small feat given that I’ve spent the last year rebuilding a life word by word.
Pinch me, I’m alive!
Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful or surprised to still be around.
My Amsterdam friends opened their home to me so I could have a safe place to rest and regroup away from the challenging reality of stage 4 cancer in Paris. I came back to Europe to support my parents and that means I must remain unflappable at all times; they can falter but I cannot.
And if I feel I’m starting to, I isolate immediately so as not to sadden them as they already have more than enough on their plate.
In the Netherlands, I’ve fallen apart several times and emerged stronger and more capable after every episode. Being around people who mean you well, never judge you, and love you regardless of whether you laugh or cry is the most empowering thing in the world.
Not only do my friends have infinite patience, but they also make the most excellent soups, which never fail to cheer me up even on the darkest days.
Treasuring the little things in life and expressing mutual appreciation in myriad gestures is how we live. It’s also how we thrive, firmly grounded in the present moment, and cramming the ordinary with as many nuggets of joy as we can.
Like a boxed salad discovered by accident and that now has the power to teleport me back to that first night whenever I eat it. Food isn’t just fuel for bodies but a repository of emotions and memories, which is why many cultures hold it in such high regard.
Whether it’s a boxed salad or your grandma’s apple pie, food is comfort, edible mindfulness nourishing bodies and hearts.
Food is life.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.