I have a deep and abiding love for nachos.
Tortilla chips. Cheddar Cheese. Black beans. Lettuce. Salsa. Guacamole. Sour Cream. All piled atop one another not haphazardly, but meticulously. I like to control all aspects of the production process—blocks of cheese shredded but in only one direction, tomatoes and onions finely diced, long, thin ribbons of iceberg lettuce, beans seasoned with garlic, cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt, apple cider vinegar, and a jalapeño or habanero pepper on hand.
I started making nachos for my friends during my sophomore year of college, but my love of “Mexican food” has been lifelong. As a child, I waited eagerly for Friday nights, when my family would briefly break away from its routine Gujarati meal—daal (lentils), bhaat (rice), roti (bread), and shaak (vegetables)—for tostadas when we could find them and taco shells split in half when we could not. The layers of beans, cheese, lettuce, and salsa hit all of my savory sweet spots. Over the years, our nachos transformed: Black beans replaced refried pinto beans; bags of pre-shredded yellow cheese were supplanted by blocks of extra sharp Vermont white; bottles of Picante were superseded by homemade pico de gallo and salsa from our favorite local Mexican restaurant. We added sour cream, guacamole, and sometimes black olives.
By now, my love for nachos is my best-known idiosyncrasy. Their prominence in my life is not just a matter of personal taste. More importantly, nachos have increasingly become a marker for how my diasporic experiences are dynamic and hybrid, particularly when it comes to my relationship with my family.
I wrote my undergraduate and master’s theses on heritage preservation in Ahmedabad, India, where my family is from, and spent a lot of time during my early twenties thinking about how the word “heritage” is used to invoke notions of collective and individual identity. I researched how planners, businessmen, and government officials invoked heritage as a mechanism for urban branding in India—often at the expense of historically marginalized and persecuted groups. In this instance, heritage was nothing other than the buildings, cultural practices, and food traditions powerful people used as a way to craft a marketable sense of place. By the time I abandoned the project in advance of starting my PhD research, the word had become an empty signifier. It continues to occasionally pop into my lexicon, however—firing synapses that set my brain on the move.
Two years ago, I was living with my parents during a mental health leave from graduate school. I moved home after the second year of my PhD program because anxiety and depression had taken over my ability and desire to pursue my coursework and research. Homesickness, too, had no small part to play in this—by this time I’d been living more than eight hundred miles away from my family for six years and the distance was taking its toll. One day, I arrived home from the gym when my dad offered to make me lunch. I asked him what my options were, and after floating a few ideas, he finally landed on nachos. It was a generous offer, but anxiety and depression had rendered me unable to respond with anything other than ungratefulness. I snapped, “I am tired of eating nachos.” In his usual unaffected and witty manner, my dad shot back, “Anar, that’s impossible. Nachos are your heritage.”
I replay this scene in my head frequently because, in this context, “heritage” means something very different than it did in my research— “heritage” is the things and practices your people share with one another across time and space in a way that comes to say something about who you are and where you come from.
When we think about the cultural identities of diasporic communities, our instinct is to look past the ways they’ve strived to make themselves at home in foreign places, and to magnify the food, dances, clothes, and religious practices they have preserved from their home countries. We call this “tradition” without remembering that traditions themselves are dynamic and adaptable to shifting circumstances and lifeways. Perhaps this is something we do to ourselves in order to prove that we are resistant to the formidable forces of assimilation. But they are also boxes we are put into. As one food writer from NPR recently described, in the field of food writing writers of color are often limited to writing about ethnic cuisines and traditional foods.
What is lost, then, are the traditions that are new and maybe still in formation, but equally important. The centrality of Taco Bell to the South Asian American experience is a popular trope that circulates vividly among desis. There are notable structural similarities between Indian food and Tex-Mex/Mexican food. For many South Asian immigrants who migrated to the US before ethnic cuisines and vegetarianism were in vogue, Taco Bell was singular in its selection of substantive and affordable vegetarian options.
I reached out to fellow brown folks on Twitter to see if anyone would be willing to support my claims about the significance of “Mexican food” to their diasporic experiences. It did not get me very far, except into an argument with an Indian-American man who insisted on clarifying that what I kept calling Mexican food in my queries was, in fact, Tex-Mex—which raised more questions than it answered about what happens when one culturally marginalized community adopts (or appropriates) the food of another culturally marginalized community.
Leaving the problem of terminology aside for a moment, however, what nachos suggest to me is the notion that our traditions are not simply the things we have preserved from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh, but also the things we create in order to feel a little less alone. During the holidays, my dad announced to my aunts and uncles over breakfast that I planned to write an essay about nachos—a statement that elicited a look of joy from my aunt. He added, “But it’s not really about nachos, right? It’s about family.” Indeed, when I talk about nachos, I am almost always talking about my relationship to my family. More specifically, I am often talking my relationship to my father, from whom I have not only inherited my tedious approach to food preparation, but also my temperament, sense of humor, and intellectual orientation.
But nachos also have a valence that extends beyond my nuclear family and into our extended family. Before my grandparents passed away, we used to make periodic trips to visit them in Wilmington, Durham, Atlanta, or Jackson where they stayed with my four aunts. During these weekend trips, nachos were always on the menu alongside the more typical Gujarati meals, and my dad always took the lead on its preparation, much to the happiness of my grandparents—who deeply adored their youngest son. In the course of my family’s life in the US, nachos have become a bonding activity for my dad and his sisters, who make plates upon plates together as my dad explains why he layers the ingredients in the order he does (mirroring my own fastidiousness on the same front), as well as for us kids, who joke endlessly about how nachos are our most important food group. In the instances in which we prepare and consume nachos together, a familial philosophy that is usually intangible is made palpable: that there is no other reason to love a person other than that they are yours to love.
When I think about loneliness, then, I’m at once thinking about the cultural alienation that is a consequence of migration, as well as in the everyday lonesomeness we feel when we live far away from the people we love most. My desire to attend a northeast liberal arts school and my aspiration to earn a PhD have taken me to college and graduate school hundreds of miles away from home. In the decade since I moved away, I have felt debilitating homesickness, in the face of which I almost always resort to nachos.