Books

A Romance Writer’s Love Language? Good Food.

Novelist Jasmine Guillory shows affection with brownies and jambalaya.

In this essay from the new collection Black Love Matters: Real Talk on Romance, Being Seen, and Happily Ever Afters, romance author Jasmine Guillory reflects on how she was taught to show love through food.

“There’s so much food in this book!”

That comment — one I’ve consistently gotten on all of my books since my first book, The Wedding Date — is one that’s always bemused me, especially at the beginning. At first I didn’t really understand it: I write romance novels, of course there’s a lot of food in my books! Doesn’t everyone show love through food?

Well, apparently not, but my characters all do. And, I’ve realized, they do so because my family — especially the elders in my family — modeled this to me throughout my life. Cooking someone’s favorite dish for them, cooking your own favorite dish to share with them, making sure someone is well nourished and well taken care of — those are some of the many ways my grandparents taught me how to show love.

Granny and Papa — my father’s parents — had what I now realize was a pretty small house, when you consider they had eight children and seventeen grandchildren. But it never felt small to me. We all crowded into the living room, where Granny’s stories were always on the television, and Papa always rocked in his rocking chair and pretended he wasn’t paying attention to them. We all played in the backyard, fighting and making up and having constant adventures every day. And we all spent a lot of time in Granny’s kitchen. There were always cookies in the cookie jar, popsicles in the freezer, and often gumbo on the stove. But the thing I remember more than any other that Granny made was her coconut cake. She made it for every event, every birthday, every holiday, and though I don’t even really like coconut cake, I always ate it. Once, in my early twenties — when Papa was gone, and Granny was fading — I said something to one of my older cousins about that coconut cake, and how it was Granny’s favorite cake. My cousin laughed, and said, “No, that was Papa’s favorite cake.”

All that time, Granny had really been making the cake for Papa. I hadn’t even realized it. Granny and Papa were never particularly affectionate with one another, or with us, their grandchildren, even though none of us have ever doubted how much they loved us. And maybe this is one reason why: they always both found a way to show us — and each other — their love in other ways.

My Grandma — my mother’s mom — had three husbands, all of whom she loved dearly. She and my grandfather — her first husband — got divorced when my mother was little, but they remained best friends until my grandfather died, and talked on the phone almost every day. (I sometimes wonder what their subsequent spouses thought of their relationship, knowing my grandmother, their opinions would not have mattered to her at all.) They didn’t see each other that often — they got divorced for a reason — but Grandma would sometimes drop food over at his house, just to make sure he was eating right.

Her third husband, Stan, was another grandfather to me. When I think of him, I think of the many ways he showed me that he loved me — his great pride in my accomplishments, how he found me my first car, how he would wear my college and law school sweatshirts everywhere, just for an opportunity to brag about me. But those aren’t the things I think of most. I think of him every time I fry myself an egg in butter, like he used to make for me. I think of him every time I make, or have, red beans and rice, just like he used to make, from his native New Orleans. And I think of him, and of my grandmother, and how much they loved each other, whenever I do one very specific kitchen task.

When Stan was dying, he came home from the hospital for his last few days. I came over to the house to see him, for what I thought might be — and was — the last time I saw him. When I walked in the house that afternoon, my grandmother was at the kitchen table, peeling and deveining shrimp. I said, “Grandma, what are you doing?” She snapped at me, in a way that didn’t hurt my feelings at all, “I’m peeling and deveining shrimp!” I said, “Yes, but…why?” She said, “Well, people still have to eat lunch!”

I just smiled, and went to the back room, where Stan’s hospital bed had been set up. He was totally lucid, in good spirits, and was smiling and joking with me as usual. And then he asked me, “What’s your grandmother doing?” I said, “She’s peeling and deveining shrimp.” He looked at me, and I looked back at him, and we both burst out laughing. That shared, joyous laughter, at my grandmother and her ways, ways that we both found exasperating and loved at the same time, is my last memory of Stan. It’s a really great one.

I learned this lesson from my grandmothers, more or less unconsciously. When I love someone — or even like them a lot — I want to feed them. And not just any food: I want to feed them food that they’ll love, food that will nourish their soul. I want to share meals with people, cook for them in times of joy and in times of sorrow. In law school, when I was first becoming friends with the group of people who, many years later, are still some of my closest friends in the world, I made jambalaya for them all in my tiny grad student kitchen. I’d never made it without my mom in the kitchen with me, I burned myself taking the pan out of the oven (I still have the faint scars of that burn), and it was a really great night.

Whenever something good or bad happens to loved ones who are far away, my first goal is to find a way to get them food I know will make them happy. One of my best friends had a difficult pregnancy, and one of the few foods that comforted her during that hard time were chocolate chip cookies from a specific bakery near her house. When she had the baby, I couldn’t go to see her, because I was on the other side of the country. But another friend and I conspired to get a delivery of a dozen of those cookies to her hospital room. She still remembers those cookies, what a surprise they were, and how loved they made her felt. And, years after I made that jambalaya, when one of those same law school friends had a family emergency, I baked brownies and shipped them to him and his family. I couldn’t do anything to help them in the way I wished I could, but I hoped that they could feel the love in those brownies.

One of the things I missed so much during the pandemic was being able to cook for people I love. Even though it was hard, I found small ways to do it. A friend had a baby early in the pandemic, and I brought cinnamon rolls to her house — I left them in a bag outside the front door, and then she stood at the window and held the baby up to me, and we waved and smiled while her older daughter feasted. A friend’s mother passed away a few months into the pandemic — my friend couldn’t be with her mom, I couldn’t be with my friend, and I ached for her and her loss. I sent her half a dozen pints of gourmet ice cream, in the hopes that the food could show her, a little, how much I love her and mourned for her.

One sad, precious moment from that year was from when a friend’s beloved dog died. She lives near me, and so when I saw her post about the dog, I immediately made cookies to bring to her house. She opened the door, saw the cookies, and started crying. Then she put her mask on, and said, “Can we hug?” That was one of the best hugs I’ve ever had.

And when loved ones do this for me, it touches me deeply. A few years ago, three weeks before my first book came out, I had my own, compounded, family emergency, with two family members on the same critical floor of the same hospital. When a far away friend texted me a $5 Starbucks gift card and told me to get a treat with it, it made me cry (I still tear up when I think about it). When, in the midst of the pandemic, I reached a small, but meaningful personal milestone, two friends surprised me with a hand delivered cheesecake. When, relatively early in our relationship, an ex began to bring me coffee every morning, with the exact amount of milk and sugar I like in it, I started to fall in love.

I am also endlessly fascinated by food, and the kinds of food we love and the kinds of food we share with one another, and I think it can say a lot about who a person — or a fictional character — is. Whenever there’s a description in a book or show of a meal where something major happens to characters, I always want to know what they’re eating. (The Friday night dinners in the Gilmore Girls never had quite enough details about the food for my taste). I’ve always gravitated towards books that were specific about the food and drinks involved, and those scenes always seemed to sparkle for me. Is there anyone out there who read Anne of Green Gables who didn’t want to have some of that “raspberry cordial” that got Anne drunk? If so, I haven’t met them.

So of course it feels natural to me that when two people are attracted to one another, they’d share cheese and crackers; that a gift of early morning doughnuts would cause a woman’s heart to beat faster; that flirting over a table full of tacos would be a perfect first date; and that a winning manner of courtship would be a cake delivery — not of just any cake, but the exact cake someone said she loved. Gifts of food can do so much, both for the recipient and the giver. They’re a way to share part of yourself, a way to nourish someone else, to give them a treat, either as a celebration, or a pick me up when they need it. And they also make someone feel seen, cared for, and loved. Food is the way to my heart, in real life, as well as in fiction.

From the book BLACK LOVE MATTERS: REAL TALK ON ROMANCE, BEING SEEN, AND HAPPILY EVER AFTERS edited by Jessica P. Pryde. Copyright © 2022 by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Reprinted by permission.