How I Came to Value Food and Family

For me, and clearly for my mother as well, good food is synonymous with many other positive, life changing experiences and philosophies.  Family, environmental sustainability, health, community, social responsibility, and happiness to name a few.  I’ve always known this to be true and over the years it has become more and more paramount and apparent in my life.  In interviewing my mother and explicitly addressing the evolution of her experiences with parenting and food, these foundational concepts were made explicit and laid bare.

Mostly focusing on her experiences with me and my sisters when we were young children, my mother expressed her gratitude for having children who were not picky and thus easy to please.  She recalls us playing the “If you could only eat 5 foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?”-game with us when we were quite young.  I was pleased when she reported that my response was often green beans and pears.  While assuring me that my love for good food was intrinsic, when I asked her if she thought pickiness in children was a result of the behavior of parents, she declined to take any credit for my predispositions.  Instead, she emphasized the importance of structure in our lives and how, by engaging us in conversation about what we wanted to eat, she involved us in our own experience with food.  She said that while she took into account what we wanted, her initial years as a parent forced her to think of food in terms of what was healthy.

After my parent’s divorce when I was 4, she related that the main shift in our eating habits was that we finally were able to eat with her.  As a young child, my father would work late and so my mother would eat with him, feeding us our “kids meal” at a time more befitting our internal body clocks.  So when she began eating with us, in her own home, we began eating “grown-up” food. Couscous salad with garbanzo beans, cucumber, and tomato, pasta salads with veggies and sausage, soups, and most importantly lots of vegetables.

It was interesting to her my mother discuss her childhood experiences with family dinners, as every dinner was family dinner.  In a similar way, I was raised with the understanding that dinner was an affair where everyone sat down together exactly when dinner was ready (no waiting five minutes to finish whatever task was at hand).  I believe this instilled in me a strong association between family and food.  To this day, the two are inseparable.  You cement relationships, create family, and celebrate connections through sharing food.  Over the years I’ve observed that once  you know someone you can determine whether or not family dinners were a part of their upbringing.  In a way it has became one of the ways I measure people for if they were raised to value family the way I do, we have a solid basis of understanding.

My mother’s attentiveness and awareness to the needs of her children and their relationship to food has served me well over the years.  I could never thank her enough for, whether her efforts were conscious or intuitive, she has instilled in me a passion and love that is enduring and one that has shaped how I view my relationship with the earth, with other people, and with myself.  So, thank you, Mom.

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Learning to Love: Breakfast

I’ve never been a breakfast person.  Not because I don’t like breakfast, but because I’m not a morning person.  Normally, by the time I’m up and ready to eat, it’s past breakfast time (often well past).  I’ve never felt like losing thirty extra minutes of sleep in order to make yourself a delicious morning meal was time well spent.  Consequently, breakfast for me is quick, easy, and rather insubstantial.

However, I love breakfast foods.  As a sweet-tooth kinda gal, I’ve always loved fluffy pancakes slathered with warm maple syrup, crisp waffles with piles of sugar soaked strawberries and clouds of airy whipped cream, and steaming muffins with berries or chocolate chips hidden like buried gems amongst springy, moist flesh. Anything with sugar and I loved it.  As the years went on, I began to love the more savory breakfasts.  Huevos Rancheros with those deliciously earthy black beans and the promise of salsa, omelettes with every vegetable under the sun mixed with gooey cheese and salty ham, hashbrowns with crisp brown outer layers and soft, salty insides.  Clearly the problem isn’t that I don’t like breakfast foods, it’s just that I have a hard time with mornings.

And then I fell in love.

It’s amazing how things change when you fall in love.  Suddenly, breakfast became my favorite meal because I got to share it with him.  The act of communion that the cooking, sharing, eating, and cleaning up of breakfast entailed colored the promise of the day all kinds of shades of rosy red and sunkissed orange.  With him, breakfast became an expression of affection, of silent connection, of the desire to share our experiences of the day before they even occurred.  An unspoken ritual of preparation.

And the best part about it was that he cooked for me.  When he cooked, I could almost feel the love radiating off of him, as if the heat from the stove were just a physical manifestation of his appreciation.  When he cooked, he was paying homage to our relationship.  He was not the kind of man who knew how to tell you he loved you, often times even had a hard time showing it, but in the mornings, I knew.

And he fed me so well! Mounds of fluffy scrambled eggs, carefully partitioned and prepared grapefruit, perfectly toasted English muffins with butter seeping into the crusty brown cracks, sautéed onions and spinach and bell pepper, home-fries crisped to perfection, melted sharp cheese, pesto from the night before, burritos wrapped in tin foil for the sad days we couldn’t sit down to enjoy one another, yogurt and berries and granola for those days he felt like a healthy kick in the pants was needed, disgusting smoothies with boosters and algae and all those gross things that make you strong and happy, simple slices of tomato, coffee so strong and black it punched holes right through the fuzziness of early mornings.  Everything prepared with careful assuredness and attentiveness to detail.

I was proud to watch him, to eat his food, to bask in the products of his love and know that it was for me.  Every flick of his wrist as he tossed the contents of a pan, every snick of his knife hitting the cutting board, every hiss of the kettle as water boiled was for us.  So I would sit and watch and eat and know he loved me.  That his love sustained me.

Yes, I would say that breakfast is my favorite meal.

Experiencing the Mission District: From Picket Fences to Perfect Tacos

Emerging from the underground tunnels of BART can often be very disorienting.  One minute you’re on a platform in some posh suburban neighborhood and twenty minutes later you’ve emerged into the hustle and bustle of city life.  But even then, the world you emerge into can vary so drastically from one stop to the next, it’s hard to wrap your head around.

Disembarking at the 24th Street-Mission stop was shocking.  The world of posh soccer moms, luxury vehicles, and picket fences seemed worlds away from the working class, ethnic neighborhood of the Mission district.  Scuffed work boots, gusts of refuse smelling wind, shouting locals, and the overwhelming prevalence of Spanish on all signs and business windows indicated that we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Anticipating all the deliciously savory flavors I associate with Mexican and Latin American cuisine, I was a bit surprised by the amount of sugar we encountered.  Many traditional Mexican pastries at La Victoria bakery, a pumpkin spiced mini-cupcake from Mission Minis, and coconut sorbet ice cream from Humphry Slocombe felt overpoweringly sweet, though they accompanied charming locations.  What really excited me was the salt, the meat, and the spices of our more substantial stops.  Empanadas at Mr. Pollo on the corner of 24th and Mission, huaraches (sandals, because of the shape) from a tiny huaracheria corner-store, and overflowing al pastor tacos from El Farolito, the proclaimed birthplace of the burrito.

Nothing is more satisfying than a good taco.  The tacos from El Farolito were some of the best.  As our guide said, one of the ways you can tell if a taqueria is good is by determining whether or not they have al pastor on their menu.  The time and care needed to make good al pastor is substantial, thus if a taqueria provides al pastor they are declaring themselves to be of the upper echelon, of high caliber.  El Farolito’s al pastor was decadently close to perfection.  The finely chopped pieces of pork were carefully browned to perfection but still red from the richness of the hours-long marinating process.  And honestly, that’s pretty much all you need for a good taco.  The tortilla was present, the cilantro and salsa as well, even some small chunks of onion.  Ta da!  There’s your taco.  Steaming, spicy, and messy.  I couldn’t help but like the red, flavorful oil dripping down my hand.  I picked clean my paper lined plastic basket of whatever taco-innards had somehow escaped my gaping maw.

Walking out of El Farolito, stomach gorged but still craving more, I wondered when I’d be back.  Who I’d proudly march down to this gem of a place and make them eat my newfound favorite.  As it started to rain in earnest, we hurried back to BART, somehow both eager and sad to be leaving.  As we descended into the bowels of the city that house BART, I took one last look at the streets that housed so much culture, so much history.  I silently stepped onto my train and was sucked back into white, upper class suburbia just minutes away.

The Science of Daring

Suffice to say . . .  don’t try this at home, folks.

While my mind drifted and toyed with any number of ideas involving a combination of bacon, rice noodles, and cinnamon, none really seemed plausible to me.  They felt bold, sophisticated.  As if they demanded a level of skill I myself didn’t possess, or an awareness of flavor and layering that I could barely conceive of.  So, pretty much from the beginning I was destined for failure.  My lack of self-confidence and my unwillingness to take a risk led to my own culinary demise.  Because the recipe I came up with, safe and seemingly secure, was terrible.

I decided to take the bacon and make it more accessible.  I took artistic liberty and chose to use Canadian bacon.  Oh, man was I playing it safe in retrospect.  But I thought that it would pair better with rice noodles.  I figured I could just do some basic stir-fry, Asian-ish sorta thing and call it done.  Throw in some veggies, some Canadian bacon, and some rice noodles and voila! But then there was the cinnamon. . .

I found a recipe that called for a combination of sugar, soy sauce, and curry powder for the sauce and I thought, “Oh, I can squeeze in the slightest bit of cinnamon in there and it won’t be too bad.”  Little did I know.

Let me tell you, a little bit of cinnamon goes and long, long, long way.  I felt like I put in just a sprinkle into my hastily, verging on angrily constructed sauce, but all of a sudden all you could taste was cinnamon.  The combination of the curry powder and cinnamon, while seemingly not-so-bad sounding, was so, so bad.  The cinnamon brought out the bitterness of the curry powder, coloring the entire dish this bitter taste vaguely reminiscent of the sweetness that is supposed to compliment cinnamon.

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While I could taste and feel and smell a shadow-dish that could’ve been good, a delicious if somewhat plain broccoli/carrot/onion stir fry, the off taste of a mis-seasoning drowned that poor shadow out completely leaving in its wake a sucker-punched palate and a sour look on the consumer’s face.  Disappointed in myself (as I always am when I don’t do everything just right which by the way rarely happens), I refused to accept the pale compliments my friends graciously tried to rain down upon my deflated ego.

Lesson Learned: Be bold, be confident, and use cinnamon even more sparingly then you think you should.

Community in Chinatown

It’s always refreshing to be removed from your comfort zone, to feel like you’re experiencing something completely new.  Nothing puts your life and perceptions into perspective better than being confronted with something foreign.  San Francisco’s Chinatown provides a brief immersion experience that facilitates this kind of necessary perspective-building exercise.  Throngs of dark haired people scurrying around muttering brief hellos to one another as they pass by, or discussing who knows what over stalls of fresh produce in frantic voices.  Men and women of all ages going about a life that I have a hard time grasping.  Laundry hanging from the balconies of single residence only homes, ducks so succulent they drip fat hanging in glass display windows, chicken feet poking out from large bins, dried fish staring at you with dehydrated but alive eyeballs, exotic fruits whispering strangely compelling secrets.

I got a glimpse into a culture that values community and personal connection, something strangely deficient in this modern, American world of ours.  People gathered outside shop fronts, in public spaces, and on street corners to talk and share and watch others.  They stopped our guide if they knew him and if they didn’t, they stared to see if they recognized him anyways.  While listening attentively to the history of these people and the hardships they’ve faced together over the years, I began to understand why and how community had been fostered over the years.  They had no other choice— in order to survive, community was their only option.  And one way to create community is by preserving and stimulating culture.

Nothing is more critical to culture than food.  By keeping traditional Chinese foods alive and by creating new “fusion” traditions, Chinatown dwellers constructed their own culture— that of the Chinese-Americans.  Not American because of the Chinese influence and not Chinese because of the American influence, the Chinese-Americans of Chinatown go about their lives in an utterly unique way.

Walking down Waverly Place and alleys that harbor niches where old men spend their day watching passer-bys, I catch glimpses of a culture I recognize.  I see trinkets or enterprising capitalists making fortune cookies or t-shirts screaming “I heart San Francisco,” and in these things I see California culture.  Not Chinatown culture, not Chinese culture, but pure California.  This is reflected in the food.  Traditional Chinese dishes are dressed up with California produce, a familiar crunch amidst a sea of unfamiliar noodles or broth.  Or perhaps they are dressed down, stripped of much of the authenticity of their original form so as to be more palatable for a “less” authentic, often whiter consumer.  Either way, the result is a hybrid culture— unique, but still vaguely relatable for a simple California girl such as myself.

Possibility

When I was maybe 8 years old, my family decided to get chickens.  It was a big deal for all of us.  We had to do research, build a coop, find the chicks, raise them up, release them anxiously into the big world, and wait.  We waited for what felt like ages until finally, one day, a day that seemed much like any other, we got our first egg!

Our new, homegrown eggs were like precious jewels, nestled into their carton in the fridge.  Some were the terra cotta brown of store bought eggs, while others were a pale almost imperceptible green.  I remember running my fingers over our first six-pack, touching each one gently and admiringly.  I wondered what they would become.  Would they be scrambled and eaten as a hasty breakfast, or fried and added to toast, or put into cookies?  The possibilities were endless. . . It seemed like one little egg contained entire worlds of possibility.

One day, I was lucky enough to catch one of our hens surreptitiously finding a tucked away corner to huddle in as she delivered her daily present for me.  I quietly snuck over and, standing maybe ten feet away, proceeded to watch in awe as she cooed and clicked her way through the elemental process.  Much like a mother nursing, she hunkered down into some meditative state so she could focus solely on her task.  Her rear facing me, I saw the egg, in glorious detail, slowly emerge from the safety of the hen and drop a frightening height of perhaps eight inches onto the slated panels of the wooden deck.  Literally shaking herself out of her silent reverie, the hen got up and, eyeing me, loudly proclaimed the arrival of her gift not knowing that rather than creating a small chicken she instead had given me a source of sustenance.  As she strutted away, I approached the egg and reached out for it.  The shell was still soft, as if some mould that was still setting.  And it was incredibly warm, a silent testament to its recent residence inside its host-mother.  I had never seen anything so magical.

I held the egg nestled in the palm of my hand, fingers gently clutched around it as if it was some source of reassurance, until the heat faded completely.  Ever since my stint as silent spectator to this private event, every egg is that much more complete, that much more holy.  Placing the egg amongst the others in their cold, sterile, cardboard protectors, I touch them even more reverentially remembering that each one was delivered to me through this silent, sacred ritual of birth.

Young and Wild and Free

Everything felt better than it had in the States, everything tasted better, everything looked better.  I wasn’t yet 18, a recent high school graduate, and I was traveling around Greece with eleven of my closest friends.  We were unstoppable, kings and queens of the world.

As we bounced from island to island, exploring hidden beaches, the novelty of bars, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, we discovered the most precious gift Greece had to offer: the gyro.  A mix between a taco and a sandwich, this Mediterranean dish fueled us throughout our entire journey.  Salt and spice dipped pita surrounded spit-roasted pork slices, onion, tomato, tzatziki sauce, and none-other-than an American classic: French fries.  Incredibly simple, cheap, and mouth-wateringly tasty, we all had at least two, sometimes more, a day.  The saltiness of the pork and the French fries melded nicely with the yogurt and cucumber of the tzatziki, while the onion and tomato provided the freshness needed to keep you from feeling completely guilty about your unabashed consumption of sodium and carbohydrates, as is the way with most fast food.

The last night we were on the island of Paros, all 12 of us went out to our favorite chain gyro joint to get one last gyro and say goodbye to our new waiter friend named Christos or Demetrios or whatever his name was.  We sat around— tanned, laughing, and full of the joy of good company and good food— and gorged ourselves on gyros and Coke.  We celebrated our camaraderie, our youth, and the infinite possibilities that lay ahead of us as we watched the sunset kiss the horizon of the wine dark Mediterranean and wiped tzatziki from our chins.