For author Bryan Washington, a meal can be anything. It can be an apology, a reunion, an opportunity to express your bones-deep irritation with someone you love. In his latest novel Family Meal, out October 10 via Riverhead Books, Washington explores the ways in which food and comfort — and denying ourselves the pleasures of both — are intimately connected.
Set in Los Angeles, Osaka, and Houston, Family Meal tells the story of Cam, a Houston bartender who’s working through overwhelming grief, and TJ, the childhood friend with whom Cam has a deeply complicated relationship. Cam’s life has been marked by a series of tragedies, including the horrific loss of his partner Kai, who was killed shortly before he moved back to his hometown. As he works in a bar in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, the epicenter of the city’s queer nightlife scene, Cam smothers his grief with pills and anonymous hook-ups while he tries to repair his friendship with TJ, which has been damaged by years of distance and unspoken apologies.
Eater sat down to talk with Washington about how he approached integrating food into Family Meal, how emotional turmoil can shape our relationship with food, and what it means when a meal functions as a language, both in the story and in our lives.
Eater: How did you approach the role of food in Family Meal?
Bryan Washington: The meal is important, but only insofar as it’s in service of everything surrounding it. Cooking served as an access point to have conversations around care and comfort, and what those look like and how they can change. I also wanted to explore the ways in which a character can relate to their own body, or the bodies around them, the ways in which they can relate to pleasure. I thought about the labor behind preparing a meal for someone, and who they want to prepare a meal for. Something like a hastily prepared okonomiyaki dish can function as a shorthand for that relationship and how much it has changed.
In the chapters where Cam and Kai are together, we see Cam cooking a lot. By the time he’s in Houston and working in the bar, he’s barely eating. How would you describe how his relationship to food has changed after this horrible tragedy?
For Cam, his relationship with the act of preparing a meal, and the emotional space that he’s in when he’s cooking, is tied quite closely to Kai, who he no longer has access to. The person is no longer present, but the association of the emotions and time shared becomes much more challenging for Cam to navigate. I think it’s only after he’s found himself in Houston, this deeply familiar place, that he’s even able to broach the question of what the act of sharing a meal can look like going forward. That was something that was really interesting to me, and something that I wanted to circle around for the duration of the book.
Where did you ultimately land on that? How does a person rebuild their relationship with food, and with eating communally, from the ground up?
One component is acknowledging that it’s okay for that relationship to change over time, and it’s okay to not look at it in any one particular way. It can be something that we’ve settled into and are comfortable with, only for our minds to change entirely five weeks or five months or five years later. For Cam, one of the challenges that he navigates is the sense of who he should be. He doesn’t align with who he feels he is becoming or who he actually wants to be.
Whether it’s in the realm of food or otherwise, that’s something that each of us navigates to some degree, right? The openness to possibility and the openness to change, and also being gentle with oneself, are what I wanted to try to communicate over the course of Cam’s arc, because these are things that have been really important to me.
Cam’s disordered eating habits simmer behind the surface of the rest of the events in his life — the loss of Kai, the move, reuniting with TJ. How did you want his relationship with food to come across in Family Meal?
I wanted to replicate the feeling of disorientation. In the case of the folks who are surrounding Cam, I wanted to replicate the feeling of “wanting to help,” and “wanting to be present,” but not quite being able to identify how to best do that. The question of care was really paramount. In my role as the person telling the story, I thought a lot about how I could care for the narrative as it unspooled: What is the relationship between being honest in a narrative and attempting to access emotional honesty, while also showing care for yourself, and for the reader? I don’t think there’s one way to do that.
Toward the end of the book, Cam and TJ reunite in the Houston bakery owned by TJ’s family, and they just kind of fall back into a rhythm of working together even though there are these deep feelings of abandonment and regret between them. What is it about kitchen work that makes it easy to set your shit aside and just get the job done?
There’s such a social component, which makes the bakery really useful for writing a narrative. When you’re preparing a meal for someone else, you’re relying on your sense of knowing what this person wants. What do they need? What do I want to present to them? How can align those Venn diagrams into as close of a perfect circle as possible?
In the book, does food function like a character, just like Cam or TJ?
I don’t know that I would call it a character, but it is such a crucial component of the world for these characters. It is, to some degree, as impactful as the queer bar they spend time in or the neighborhood they love, or a particular home. The relationship between Cam and TJ is one between two queer cis men who aren’t quite sure how to communicate their love for one another. They don’t have access to the language to express that, but what has served as a shorthand for them is sharing a meal. I think a question that emerges is: How can love be communicated when the language that one has at their disposal isn’t functioning the way they would like it to, or they just don’t have that language? Also, food is just part of the world. It is a language in itself. It’s not a static entity. So as a narrative device that feels useful, because it’s another thing that is fairly true to life.
How do you go about choosing a specific dish — okonomiyaki or injera or kimchi stew, for example — to punctuate a moment?
Very little of what I write is autobiography, but one way that I superimpose my own experiences into fiction is in the meals that the characters share at these crucial moments in their trajectories — like when an important decision has to be made or a rekindling is occurring. There are quite a lot of moments where I’ve just shared, like, street food outside of a queer bar by way of a taco truck or a hot dog stand with friends as a way to access what our language is right now.
Trying to relay those dishes that I’ve had, or that I have shared with others, has actually been a big joy. It’s a little bit of a puzzle. How do I try and convey those moments? How do I make these characters feel recognizable to a reader, where they might feel some shade or iteration of their own memories?