When Yohana Solomon was preparing for her mother, Gezachin Fantaye, to visit from Ethiopia, the first thing she did was deep clean her kitchen. This is because she knows that in her family, visits are all about food.
“We wake up; we cook breakfast. Then breakfast will be done, and we’re getting ready for lunch. Then lunch is finished and somebody is coming over for dinner,” explains Yohana.
We are talking around a platter of tibs, a rich beef stew surrounded by rolls of injera, the omnipresent Ethiopian bread. Bailey and I had expected just a normal interview until Yohana, Gezachin, Aunt Shewaynesh, and Yohana’s daughter Seseni tumbled through the door with bags full of ingredients.
Into the kitchen we went, Gezachin quickly and efficiently adding everything to a sizzling saute pan and finishing a steaming-hot lunch in a matter of minutes. We now sit surrounding the communal platter, trading stories while tearing pieces of injera to scoop up the stew.
My own mother would be horrified with the amount of questions I am asking with a mouth full of food, but I can’t help it. Gezachin and Auntie are quite literally feeding me bite after bite, reaching across the table to politely (and relentlessly) offer me more food. Yohana explains this gesture, called “gursha” in Amharic, as a symbol of care and hospitality.
“You cannot do it just once, or you may have relationship troubles.” Yohana explains. I nod silently, as I continue to chew this delicious mouthful of food that Gezachin just carefully placed in my mouth. I can see her preparing another bite, her eye on me.
Yohana grins. “You have to say yes, otherwise the interview won’t go well.”
In my experience, there is no mother on earth who will let you leave their table hungry, and Gezachin is no exception. She traveled from Ethiopia to the US with luggage filled to the brim not with personal belongings, but with things to feed her family: Ethiopian herbs, spices, green coffee, and honey. Gezachin will be using these well-traveled ingredients to cook for her family, and anyone else in the vicinity, during her many-week stay.
When Yohana was growing up in Ethiopia, food was always at the center of the family. She doesn’t recall her mother directly teaching her any recipes, but through watching, tasting, and practice, Yohana learned how to cook Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Italian food. Yohana and her sisters were expected to cook for the family from a young age, and Yohana has taken those experiences with her as she has grown her own cooking and catering business in Atlanta.
Even now, with the family spread out between two continents, food is still the center of their relationship. This is Gezachin’s first visit in four years, and the self-described “ultimate foodie” family spends much of their visit deciding what they are going to eat next.
In particular, they seek out cuisines that they think have a lot of flavor, just like Ethiopian food – Gezachin lists Cuban, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and numerous Middle Eastern cuisines being among her favorite. Any American food she likes in particular?
“Burgers,” Gezachin says without hesitation. Yohana laughs.
Mother and daughter also cook together, although they both describe the occasional “war in the kitchen”. Sometimes, one of them finds it best to leave the cooking to the other and just reconvene over the dinner table. Yohana says that while her mother might not have taught her strict recipes, she definitely lets you know what she thinks about your style.
“Gezachin means ‘one who conquers'”, explains Yohana, “and she lives up to her name.”
No matter the kitchen disagreement, the two of them love each other’s food, and they always return to a shared meal. Watching the jokes, laughter, and injera passed back and forth, the love between the pair is clear. “Food is her way of communicating that she cares.” Yohana says, smiling at her mom. Gezachin nods in agreement.
Gezachin’s visit to the US overlaps with our Mother’s Day holiday. I ask her what she thinks of the holiday, and the mother and daughter trade looks.
“Every day is mother’s day in our family.” Yohana replies.
And why shouldn’t it be? After all, this is a woman who comes to visit with a suitcase full of spices. Gezachin is prepared to show you how much she cares. She is prepared to feed you.