My Love Affair with Food by Debora McDell-Hernandez

My relationship with food is a story of a quest for culinary euphoria, but there are many chapters in this story such as family traditions, friendships, travel, love, grief, comfort, and survival. Today I will share some of those stories and focus on grief and comfort.

I was fascinated with food and preparation as early as age seven. I often helped my grandmother clean fresh fish. She let me play with the fish‒eyes, gills and all until it was time to cook it. I grew up eating fish whole, face and bones on the plate and it was delicious. My grandmother always fried fish with a dusting of flour, sometimes cornmeal, and lots of black pepper. She loved pepper!

I was introduced to the flavors of Southeast Asia as a teenager by my best friend Vee in high school, and her family from Laos. I ate many meals at her family’s home and even learned how to make spring rolls and sticky rice. When I studied abroad in Spain during my junior year of college, I tasted nearly everything that the country offered and learned how to master the tortilla Española (Spanish omelette) and Spain’s signature drink, sangria.

In my early 20s, I subscribed to Gourmet until the publication ended in 2009‒roughly 15 years. I loved their recipes and the stories behind each dish. I also had the pleasure of meeting two legendary chefs‒the original food rock star Julia Child in the mid-90s at a fundraiser, and award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson when I visited his restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem in 2019.

When I met my husband of nearly 10 years Emilio, I was delighted to find a partner who appreciated food as much as I did. We both loved cooking and entertaining and took pride in finding quality ingredients. Shopping for the ingredients was as fun as preparing meals. We once bought four types of chorizo (sausage) at a Latin American store in New Jersey: Argentinian, Colombian, Spanish, and Mexican, and later debated on which was the best. We had signature dishes, but we also delighted in taking on new culinary challenges. Fragrant cilantro, basil, lemons, garlic, and paprika were always in the air in our kitchen.

I channeled Emilio’s love for food and made Chilean empanadas by myself. Although I only made 15, I was beaming with joy…

Debora McDell-Hernandez
My Love Affair with Food

Our meals were cooked with love and told stories of our families and travels. I have fond memories of Emilio and I cooking in the kitchen and singing and dancing to tunes by the Gipsy Kings, James Brown and so many more. Everyone loved Emilio’s Chilean empanadas and he was proud to introduce friends to a dish from his native country. Making empanadas was a job that required several helping hands. We once made 400 over the course of a weekend!

I was devastated when Emilio died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm on February 17, 2016. In the first year of mourning, I lost interest in food. I ate because I needed food for fuel but I rarely cooked. Endless meals prepared by friends and family and carry-out gave me the energy that I needed. My passion for cooking and entertaining died with Emilio.

I committed to fitness plans like CrossFit in the winter of 2016 and later, boxing fitness. I ate healthy and delicious meals to stay fortified. Eventually the dazzle that left with Emilio returned to my dishes.

My zest for cooking returned in 2019 and became more robust at the start of sheltering in place in March 2020. Honestly, I think it was a veiled coping mechanism. The pandemic forced me to work from home, as well as end my social butterfly ways. There was plenty of time for reflection. Spending so much time at home inspired me to make old dishes and invent new ones.
I traveled down memory lane and recreated dishes that I enjoyed on vacations. I channeled Emilio’s love for food and made Chilean empanadas by myself. Although I only made 15, I was beaming with joy, and I knew that Emilio would have been proud.

My food posts on social media increased and I joined several cooking communities and acquired lots of fans. I was hired to lead virtual cooking demos for several organizations and the gigs continue to come. In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, I have found comfort in cooking and sharing my love of cooking with others. Zoom and social media have allowed me to stay connected to others and feed my soul. Who would have thought that my love affair with food would be rekindled during a pandemic?

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Comments (2)

  1. Barbara Gannon

    What a beautiful surprise to find this cool article! I am sitting here in Hilton Head … At the pool … On a Sunday morning …
    Sort of just browsing and here YOU are …
    I think of you often and regret that we fell out of touch … Reconnect please … XO 🥰

  2. Debora McDell-Hernandez

    Barbara, I just stumbled upon your comment after sharing this link with a friend. I’m sorry to discover your note so late. I hope that you are well and I will call/email soon.