For Bryan Washington, cooking, eating together or even refusing a home-cooked meal has far-reaching emotional repercussions. In his new novel, Family Meal, the relationships among friends are defined by the food they prepare and strengthened by the meals they share. Food provides the ultimate opportunity for community and witness against a backdrop of personal hardship and urban gentrification.
Cam is back in his hometown of Houston after the traumatic death of his boyfriend, Kai, who worked as a translator and split his time between Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan. Unable to shake the violent circumstances of Kai’s death, Cam is haunted by Kai’s memory and his nights spiral into bouts of indulgent drug use and casual sex. He eventually ends up at the bakery where he once worked, which is owned by Mae. She and her late husband, Jin, took Cam in after the death of his parents, raising him alongside their son TJ. Though the boys were once close, they drifted apart as adults, and TJ struggles to navigate Cam’s limitless despair and self-destructive behavior (Washington provides a content note suggesting that readers for whom self-harm, addiction and disordered eating are sensitive issues should go at their own pace). Feeling stuck in a relationship with a married man, TJ tentatively begins a new relationship with another employee at the bakery and explores his own nascent wish for independence. Meanwhile, Mae is under pressure to sell the business, and her thoughts about expansion are dependent on TJ’s plans. Or are they?
Although facing the people you’ve loved and left behind is often painful, as Washington demonstrates in Family Meal, it can reveal the unconditional love that remains. Shifting between points of view, Washington shows us characters at their most vulnerable, using food culture to explore conflict, desire, pleasure and passion. The meals his characters enjoy together through it all—from congee to collards to croissants—remind us of the many ways that love, like food, sustains us.