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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Four bottles of fish sauce on the wall

Mmmm, have you read Caridad’s novel It’s Not about the Accent? I love the heroine’s connection to her Cuban grandmother through cooking wonderful food together. Food as symbol and substance of culture and home is one of my favorite themes in writing. There’s Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, and The Book I Have Read The Most Times In My Life, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read this book every time I have the flu and it makes me feel so much better. Boy can Ma cook. Laura Ingalls Wilder makes even broiled pig’s tail sound good.

But you will never find me using this theme. My family comes from England, Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia--pretty much anywhere in the world known for bad food. My grandmother cooked wonderful dessert--pralines and meringue cookies--but that was about it. My mom can make a mean chocolate chip cookie. Don’t push her any farther. She makes lasagna with cottage cheese instead of ricotta and I’m actually not sure she knows the difference. Cooking is just not something that interests her. She would rather read. In this tradition, as a wedding present she gave me my very own copy of The I Hate to Cook Book, which she has been using since she got married herself.

However, I married into a family with a rich ethnic food culture. My husband has already started fasting in anticipation of Easter dinner, because his mother is making Thai food. That’s right--while you are eating ham and turkey on holidays, I am feasting on sticky rice, lop gai, sum thum, lop neer, egg rolls with peanut sauce, and pad Thai. Occasionally she also throws a curve ball like pankadow,* Chinese bitters,* or one of the previously mentioned dishes with tripe substituted for the meat.†

Bless her heart, over the years she has made an effort to teach me to cook for her child. She has brought me a rice steamer basket that looks like a hat, a double boiler that looks like a spittoon, a papaya dicer that looks like a weapon, a mortar and pestle, and four bottles of fish sauce. But she has been making these dishes since she was a little girl, picking a papaya for sum thum off the tree in her front yard on her way in from school every afternoon. She’s one of those cooks who knows her stuff so well, it’s hard for her to explain it to someone else. Especially someone who grew up thinking lasagna was supposed to be made with cottage cheese. However, my husband and I have made a pact. This is the year we will learn to cook Thai food, and we will be paying special attention this Easter.

How about you? Can you cook? What special dishes have been passed down through your family? Are they really good, or do you just think they’re good because you’re used to them? And do you ever write about them?

*Not recommended.



Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thai food for Easter sounds amazing! I'd be extremely excited.

I learned to cook when I became vegan at 17. My brother and I both went vegetarian young (I was 13, he was 11). I think my mom thought it was a passing phase (for the lil bro it was) and an opportunity to get us to eat more vegetables, so she had no problem with it. But when I told her I was going vegan, she told me she thought it was a socially acceptable form of anorexia. A rare moment of non-supportiveness from her end and she has since improved. But at first her idea of vegan cooking was pasta or a plain baked potato. Fortunately I quickly moved in with a vegan roommate who taught me how to cook and the joys of the very cool vegan cookbooks like How It All Vegan and Garden of Vegan. I also cull recipes from vegweb.org and have actually become quite the chef over the past 10 years. Though I'm still waiting to win over my meat and potatoes boyfriend with my cooking. He does say that his Italian family would probably enjoy my tofu lasagna though and hardly be able to tell the difference!

jennifer echols said...

So, do you cook a big dish of vegan for yourself and eat it for several days? I used to do this as a vegetarian pre-husband and pre-child, and that was the best food I've ever cooked imho. I had a great cookbook too. But now I have to cook meat for the child (he rolls his eyes at tofu, of course) so I have just given in.

Kelly Parra said...

I cook a lot Mexican food, because I grew up with it and it's easy to cook! I also cook a lot of pastas since my husband grew up with a lot of Italian food. I've learned to a lot of his childhood faves from his mom. And I guess I'll be teaching my kiddos if they really want to know some of their faves!

Jenny O'connell said...

I make the best tuna melts ever. They remind me of hung over Saturday afternoons in college, so in addition to being yummy, there's nostalgia involved. Also good at cheese omelets, just cheese, because I don't like veggies very much. If something requires meat or anything in a pot, count me out. I've burned more pots that we've had to throw away. I always forget I'm cooking something and I walk away only to come back to a black bottomed pot. My husband even made me promise never to cook rice ever again.

jennifer echols said...

Kelly, I want to come eat at your house!

Jenny, I have this problem too. I blame it on writing. I am so brilliant in a genius-like fashion that I cannot remember to stand in the kitchen and cook a whole meal. You know, like Einstein leaving the house without his pants.

Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

I love cooking. (As if you couldn't tell.) Although oddly, I didn't really learn how to cook Cuban from my mother as a kid because she has absolutely NO patience as a teacher. I learned how to cook other stuff on my own first, then I was able to watch her in the kitchen and pick stuff up.

But yeah, cooking is definitely a big thing for me, which is, of course, why I have one child who eats nothing but peanut butter. *rolling eyes forever*

I also love to collect cookbooks because they're one of the best anecdotal resources you can get your mitts on. Especially regional cookbooks that are put out by church groups or other organizations such as Junior League—you can get a real sense of how people not only cook, but how they live. I also love antique cookbooks, such as product cookbooks from the fifties and sixties. There are some repulsive recipes, but man, it's fun to see what their idea of throwing a "sophisticated Chinese New Year Meal" consists of or a "Real Hawaiian Luau."

My favorite recipes though, that have been handed down are the Cuban ones that I grew up with. And as you already mentioned, Jenn, I write about them. :-)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Jen- I cook two big dishes a week. Sometimes he'll eat it, sometimes night. We're still working on it.

Kelly- I want to eat at your house too!