My ex introduced me to arepas. They are now my favorite comfort food

The word “arepa” only existed for me three years ago. My knowledge of Latin American cuisine was limited to Mexican cuisine from my hometown in California. We’re known for La Victoria taquerias and their special orange sauce, but for me the best Mexican spot is a cash-only stand with picnic tables serving up classics like massive burritos, tacos and quesadillas so stuffed they might as well be burritos. Growing up, I would have a hard time listing foods from anywhere further south of the border.

Now, my partner and I fry the white cornmeal batter into crispy little disks and stuff them with salty, crumbly queso fresco and sautéed peppers at least twice a month for a Colombian/Venezuelan-inspired dinner.

Oddly enough, this staple meal of ours is a relic from my previous relationship. My ex’s Colombian mom used to make arepas for breakfast, and I found the little corn pancakes were just the right size to reheat in the toaster. They became an instant favorite and to this day remain my number one comfort food.

For someone whose diet and mental health have always been inextricably linked, comfort foods are a necessity for me. I am proud to say that I find certain comfort foods, a notion that has not always been easy for me. I’ve been learning to eat happily ever since I was eleven years old, when a “healthy eating” mission took a dark turn and sent me to the hospital with complications from anorexia.

In eating disorder recovery, the “safe foods” are the foods that are left over after you’ve vilified everyone else. When you can’t bring yourself to eat anything else, these select foods will be there. As I recovered, “safe” foods became comfort foods, like peanut butter and banana smoothies, cereal, and scrambled eggs for dinner. These are days of emptiness, days when I feel overwhelmed and anxious. They are my go-to when the world won’t stop spinning long enough for me to understand the concept of filling my stomach with something more complex. And now that list includes arepas.

When my ex and I first moved in together, we both found that we ate more regularly than ever. Months after living together, I found myself unmotivated and apathetic. Panic attacks slammed into me and took over without reason or warning.

We didn’t always understand what the other needed at that time, but my partner was reliable when it came to cooking dinner on days when depression left me with a blank mind. “Hot corn disc?” he asked (that’s what I used to call them). “Hot corn disc,” I replied, and we shared a knowing smile.

Three ingredients were all we needed for the savory pancake dinner: pre-cooked white cornmeal, water, and salt. For a very long time, I didn’t know exactly how to recreate the arepas on my own, because he made them from memory. There were no measurements. He simply heated a small bowl of water in the microwave, mixed it into a larger bowl filled with cornmeal, and sprinkled with a pinch of salt. After mixing everything together until it looked like the creamiest Thanksgiving mashed potato that was almost runny, he kneaded the dough and let it sit for a few minutes. The last step was to fry them until their yellowish color turns golden brown. To me, they smelled like gourmet movie theater popcorn – one of many flavors of nostalgia. Sometimes we brushed the arepas with my favorite vegan butter and fried eggs on the side for a fuller dinner.

But no amount of comfort food, not even arepas, could help matters.

The grief that followed our seemingly inevitable breakup left no room for food in my stomach. Some days I barely ate. My family feared I would relapse, no matter how hard I tried to explain that depression made eating unnecessary at best and impossible at worst. When I started eating again, it was purely emotional. I was coming home from my all-day partial hospitalization program and swallowing the sadness with a parade of Hershey’s dark chocolate kisses.

Two months after leaving the hospital program, I joined Bumble and contacted a girl I had ghosted months before. Turns out she was also in recovery from an eating disorder. We’ve been dating for a year now and have been doing arepas together for almost as long.

At first, I felt uncomfortable telling him about my comfort food. She’d eaten arepas at LA farmers’ markets, but never knew how easy they were to make at home. Of course, she was curious how I, a white woman of Italian and Swedish descent, came to make this Colombian dish part of my list of most popular recipes. Begin any sentence with “My ex . . .” at the start of any relationship is a bold and potentially stupid move.

When you’re going through a breakup, there are songs you need to ban from your playlists and places you can’t skip without feeling a lump in your throat. We attach so many things to someone’s memory.

But when I do arepas now, the loss doesn’t affect me the same way. Arepas are as much my thing as my ex’s. He simply provided the introduction. I didn’t even have to call to ask for the recipe; it is conveniently listed on the back of the cornmeal bag.

In my previous relationship, I wanted to be anyone other than myself, because for me that was the only way to be enough. When it ended, I felt that I hadn’t just lost myself, but everything. But now I have reclaimed the things that are me and mine.

The silver lining was warm, round and delicious.

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