How do I want to remember my brother during the holidays? It starts with a grilled cheese

Gabriela Fernandez with her brother, Ricardo.
(Photos provided by the Fernandez family and Justin Bautista)

When I think of my brother Ricardo, I remember how he went to Spain when he was 16 to visit our dad’s side of the family. It was the summer before I started third grade, and he was gone for the entire month of July. Our dad jokingly asked me if I still knew who he was when he returned, and I rolled my eyes at him. “Of course,” I said. “No one else makes grilled cheese like my brother.” Dad got defensive, of course, as he does when it comes to cooking.

Ricardo Fernandez stands near a body of water in 2010.
Ricardo Fernandez smiling for a photo in 2010.
(Justin Bautista)

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about my dad’s food knows what I have to say — that it’s inedible. It’s difficult for me to be sympathetic, in a “he’s making an effort” way. Let me explain:

My parents’ small apartment is packed with bookshelves full of cookbooks — seemingly endless pages detailing how to make everything from Atkins Diet recipes to French pastries to Southern staples. The Food Network would have been a treat to watch as a child if it wasn’t on all the time.

My dad even took cooking classes. I remember sprinting into the kitchen after coming home from elementary school to see a huge plate of cookies on our dining room table. I eagerly bit into one, and I still marvel at how the instructors let him pass the course. Flour trickled out of the hockey puck’s center. I’m really glad Ricardo didn’t take after him.

Gabby Fernandez on her brother Ricardo Fernandez's shoulders in 1999.
(Fernandez family)

When I think of Ricardo, I remember every time he asked me if I wanted Taco Bell late at night after our parents went to sleep. We’d sneak away in the beige Camry with the duct-taped sideview mirror hanging on, grateful for our father’s ability to sleep through an earthquake.

Ricardo was always eager to try complex recipes and different restaurants but, thankfully, he never looked down on the Taco Bell value menu. Much of the time, it was all we could afford, but those cheesy bean and rice burritos tasted like they were from a Michelin star establishment compared to our dad’s caper, rice, salmon and mayonnaise concoction of the day. I wish I was joking about that combination — and I know Ricardo would be grossed out by the memory of that dish too, if he were here.

I’m grateful that Ricardo disposed of any evidence of our fast-food runs. We would’ve never heard the end of it if our dad had discovered we were eating out when we had food at home.

This is how I want to remember Ricardo — as a coconspirator on a quest to find some decent comfort food.

Ricardo Fernandez, seated at a restaurant in 2010, laughs.
Ricardo Fernandez laughing at a restaurant in 2010.
(Justin Bautista)

I also want to remember how he took me shopping for a homecoming dress in the callejones of the downtown L.A. Fashion District. Coming from the South Bay, this was a trek. Instead of complaining about taking his teenage sister to shop, he found parking and waited alongside the hot dog carts, immersed in their smoky aroma, as I tried on dresses in the cramped stores.

After I found my dress, Ricardo took me to the Hat in Monterey Park for the biggest pastrami sandwich I’ve ever consumed. He liked to venture far and wide to try restaurants he’d read about online before I knew that “foodie” was even a term. He was more adventurous than he gave himself credit for.

I want to remember him teaching me how to make mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving because he convinced our dad to let him take over for the holidays; how he smiled as we ate In N Out for what felt like the millionth time.

Ricardo Fernandez holds his sister Gabby Fernandez in 1998.
(Fernandez family)

And I want to remember him picking me up from my friend’s houses in the wee hours of the morning to get breakfast burritos from Fantastic Cafe because, as he said, “Every hungover person deserves greasy food.”

I prefer those thoughts rather than remembering how I had to come home to Los Angeles for the holidays in December 2018, leaving my first postgrad job a week early and knowing that I’d never be able to ask him for cooking tips again.

It will be two years since my brother lost his battle with depression. My father no longer cooks because of memory loss. And while these losses bring sorrow on their own, that sadness comes amid compounding feelings of seasonal depression, loneliness associated with self-quarantines, and a magnitude of loss felt by many. COVID-19 has taken away the opportunity for people to convene with their loved ones and, in the worst scenarios, has taken them from us.

Ricardo Fernandez on a motorcycle trip in 2010.
(Justin Bautista)

This holiday season might look and feel a little different without the dinner parties and potlucks we never dreamed of going without, but eating food that reminds me of people I love helps me feel less alone.

Part of the joy in experiencing food, especially during the holidays, is that it can take any form we want. So whether it’s trying a new recipe with friends you haven’t seen in a while over Zoom, or getting takeout from that place your parents always used to drag you to as a child, or going to Taco Bell, there are many ways to reconnect with those we miss.

I’m thinking of making grilled cheese at my parents’ house. I know it won’t be as good as my brother’s, but that’s OK.