The power of a chicken parm

I found home, friends and family

I was never much of a cook, but when I moved into the Pride House my sophomore year, the kitchen became my place to feel productive while also doing something therapeutic. My first taste-testers were my best friends. They came over every Friday night, but one week, I proposed we trade our pizza delivery for chicken parmesan. 

We sat at my dining room table, all equally surprised that it tasted pretty damn good. And so it began: I made everything I could think of, casually asking if anybody was up for creme brulee, latkes or risotto. Still, we would always come back to chicken parm. 

It wasn’t just breaded chicken cutlets with marinara sauce and cheese. Chicken parm  became our code for a needed night in, all squeezed together on my worn-out couch, until one of us took the responsibility of calling it a night only a few hours before sunrise.

When I packed my bags in January to study for five months in Seville, Spain, I had mixed feelings. I was excited, but I was leaving my Friday nights behind — we would be spread across different time zones, cultures and countries. I asked for letters to read on the plane to Spain, and my 30-year-old brother wrote, “There will be times when all you want is to see a movie in English, to get a real cup of coffee, to seek out something bland and American like mac and cheese or a bagel. That’s OK.” 

I laughed; I couldn’t imagine craving something American. But after a month of studying four hours of Spanish a day and living with a host family, I found myself longing for the familiar.

I had a break before new classes began, and I was doing a “friendship trip” across England and Ireland. In Ireland, I visited friends that I’d never met before but had talked to through social media for years. It hit me that I was entering a different culture where friends could be hosted at home for a meal, as opposed to the Spanish unwritten rule of going out. I suggested we host a potluck dinner.

That night, I sat in my new friend’s apartment at University College Cork, crying as I cracked an egg to dip the chicken in. Each ingredient — the breadcrumbs I scrambled to find in an Irish convenience store, the tomato sauce I stored in my friend’s fridge, parmesan and mozzarella I went to three supermarkets to find — all reminded me of my sacred Friday nights. 

The realization that pieces of home could create comfort in a new country stuck with me like a sweet secret as I came upon other situations of newness. As I boarded a bus to Portugal with friends from Seville, I suggested we make some meals at the Airbnb to save money. Two nights later, I stood in a kitchen in an apartment in Faro, jamming to the Jonas Brothers as my friend roasted vegetables and I poured tomato sauce over the chicken. We finished our meals within minutes, but we stayed at the table for the next hour.

The conversations we had that night led to adventures: riding electric scooters through the city, singing Mamma Mia! to a restaurant of eye-rolling locals, and swimming in the freezing ocean while old Portuguese couples shook their heads. Sure, we weren’t immersing ourselves completely in the culture — we cooked nearly every meal and definitely were The Americans in every place we went — but by the time we returned, we were refueled by familiarity as we went back to our Spanish lives. 

When I saw my host dad frying chicken for dinner one day, I planted the seed. “¿Sabes qué es el pollo parmesano?” I asked. He shook his head, and his eyes grew wide as I explained it. The next week, we sat in the kitchen, setting out the ingredients. As we cooked, I told him how terrified I was for an upcoming scholarship interview, and he opened up to me about how he struggles to balance traveling for work and being there for his family. 

Listen, I won’t lie: It was a little too spicy for the kids, because I could only find garlic tomato sauce, and the top could’ve used some basil, too. Regardless, that hour with my host dad was one that I couldn’t have dreamed up without the dish. I can identify that night in the kitchen as the moment when the invisible line between host student and family member was broken. In our post-chicken parm relationship, we had inside jokes, talked about our days, and sometimes, he’d even ask if I wanted to help make dinner. 

Most of my “American” identity was stripped through my day-to-day Spanish activities. I would absentmindedly order a tinto de verano whenever I was out, the baristas at my local cafe knew to have a tostada ready for me every morning, and I taught English to Spanish students. My life in Spain didn’t have any comfort zones; every situation I walked into required translation of language and culture. I expected this — but I didn’t expect this arbitrary meal, this American delicacy, to be my savior and stalwart friend hundreds of miles away from anything familiar. 

And as I moved back into the Pride House kitchen a few weeks ago, I pulled out my phone and texted the group chat: “Anybody up for chicken parm?” 

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