Alone in Community with Shrimp Étouffée
I didn’t know it at the time, but growing up in a conservative community meant loneliness was frequently present in my social experiences. I was always paying attention to what the norms and etiquettes were, for fear of being found out that I didn’t belong. Looking back, I knew I wanted to be amongst people who I didn’t have to wear a mask with, watch everything I say, and always thinking if I’ve misspoken. I wanted an accepting community.
When I left the familiar communities I grew up with, I was in the vulnerable position of having to learn new social norms. The LGBTQ+ social events, the racialized community meetings, and the social-justice grassroot groups all had their unique vocabularies and norms.
On top of that, my previous community experiences shaped me to pay close attention to others’ expectations and meeting them, while neglecting how to know and be my authentic self.
I had left the communities that told me that the queer and gender non-conforming parts of me were unacceptable, but the LGBTQ+ circles I initially encountered also made me wonder if a queer and gender diverse Asian immigrant like me truly belonged there.
Many community spaces implicitly required me to show only certain parts of myself while leaving others at the door. This was an experience that happened for several years, and loneliness continued to be a part of these new social interactions.
Soothing the loneliness through cooking was my salvation. If I wanted others’ voices in my kitchen, a few clicks on the internet landed me in the realms of recipe websites and user reviews. Relaxing scrolls of the screen allowed me to tap into shared community experiences while freely reacting without social reprisal: like showing my judgment at the commenter who said they loved the recipe but changed half of the ingredients.
My favourite way to enjoy this community was finding a recipe many people loved and whipping it up in my kitchen. It was my refuge for safe and relaxing connection while my skills of fostering healthy connections with myself and others were still developing. As I began to know what foods I liked through culinary experiments, I started to crave for deeper connection and meaning in the food I make. I began to gravitate towards recipes with stories that reflected aspects of my own, which were not always the food I grew up with.
One of these recipes was shrimp étouffée from Nigerian-American Chef Kwame Onwuachi. On the Sporkful podcast, he talked about being the only Black person on a clean-up ship along the shores of Louisiana. Upon seeing how the young, white, working class workers were being fed frozen meals, he drew upon his mother’s cooking, and made shrimp étouffée from scratch. He talked about cleaning the shrimps by hand, making stock from the peeled shells, and how the smell of the dish had the workers peeking repeatedly into the kitchen. When it was served, the hall was quiet.
The workers told Chef Onwuachi that the dish was better than what their mothers had made, and friendships were foraged between him and the people he thought would never accept him. His journey of trying to make way in the world while taking the time to honour his and others’ humanity struck a deep chord with me.
Making his recipe ushered in many new experiences. Fresh thyme, which had never set foot in my kitchen, was bought in the bunch and leaves removed by rubbing them off the stem. Raw shrimp was cleaned by hand and the peeled shells joining cut lemons in a boil for stock. That afternoon, the aroma of shrimp stock and buttery roux coated my kitchen walls. As the sauce simmered to completion, I felt a swelling validation to my longing for community. The dish did not disappoint. The buttery mixture that tasted of sweet shrimp and earthy thyme enveloped every grain of rice and comforted me with every spoonful.
My desire to make this dish was inspired by Chef Onwuachi’s choice to be true to himself by cooking from the heart, and how his authenticity fostered connections where he least expected it. Eating the shrimp étouffée infused me with the hope that by learning about and expressing my authentic self, I too, could one day find the connections I seek.
Many years later, I told a new friend I had made shrimp étouffée. Her face beamed back with surprise and delight. Food became one of our common interests that paved the way to a growing friendship.
I never would have thought that a dish made on my search for community would be anything more than a comforting meal. And yet years later, this gesture of knowing and caring for myself while alone and learning, becomes an experience I can use to nourish my present relationships.
How this connects to therapy:
Having worked with many LGBTQ+ immigrants of colour, I’ve seen loneliness as a common feeling in our lives. Finding and being in community is a practice that requires us to keep knowing and caring for ourselves. Your values, pleasures, and interests will inform who you want to be with and how you want to be with them. This is a journey that takes time. You can start by building your own internal community through books, movies, and even recipes. The more you cultivate your internal skills of knowing yourself and who you want to be with, the better you will be at finding social community and weathering the ups and downs in your search.
It is a journey I would love to help you with. Your story will be different from mine, but you deserve to have a kind and professional guide to help you pave the path to a community that will really see you. I have seen in my clients that as they take manageable steps to foster meaningful connections to themselves, these experiences become gifts that nurture their present and future relationships. I wish for you to have this opportunity, to nurture yourself while you grow the relationships you want.