Retracing Roots

Watching Top Chef All-Stars last night rang so true to what I’m attempting to capture in this blog: the relationship between heritage and family on food, home, and love. I felt a twinge when the contestants were challenged to cook from their heritage, their genealogies having been researched for them. And I cried when the family members showed up (yeah, I’m a sucker) to go through the heritage dossiers with each contestant.

The competitors sat on Ellis Island with their moms or spouses, taking notes from their past, imagining ingredients and dishes that connected with their family history. I’d like to say that I learned how to cook at my mother’s knee, or that I always wandered into the kitchen as a toddler, begging to help – but I didn’t.

I did, however, love to eat. My mom tells a story about making siopao, steamed pork buns, with my aunt. This is an all-day process, one that I’ve never tried (and as long as I live in NYC and a subway ride away from Chinatown, where I can get a dozen for under $10 at Mei Li Wah, I probably won’t). Somewhere in the rising process, they turned away from the dough, and when they turned back, two little fistfuls had been scooped out. Coupled with my history of being given two baby bottles, one for me and one for my sister, and my walking away from the adults taking sips from both, they deduced that I was the likely culprit.

I’ve been blessed to come from a food culture (Filipino), where the women are excellent cooks. As a result, I never had to think about food, except in college, when I was trying to abstain from it. I’ve lived with conflicting messages from some family members, having a plate of food shoved into my hand with the corresponding, “eat! eat!” while they tell me “oh, you got so fat!” Standards of beauty in the Filipino-American culture I grew up in (I’m first-generation American) fall on the side of American: pale, thin, tall. But so many of our bodies aren’t built that way. We’re shorter than average. Browner. Rounder.

Though I could be healthier and more active, I’ve also come to terms with the natural form of my body: I’ll never grow beyond 5’0” and will likely always be rounder than some. Especially now that I’ve started to love eating with and cooking for my loved ones, dieting and abstaining from food just for the purpose of transforming my body, seems sinful when we’re fortunate enough to be able to eat well at home.

I return to my childhood. To the girl who wasn’t punished for pilfering dough, who was rewarded with giggles for drinking from two baby bottles. To the girl who was fed sotanghon when she was sleeping. To a time when food was for body, soul, family. Growing up, we had family dinner in the dining room every night. We sat around the table, no books or TV in sight, and ate. Probably talked about our days. Our dog Frisky watched from the kitchen, and tried to edge her way into the dining room. My food memories from these days are hazy: I just remember food was always plentiful and there was always rice.

As I’ve said before, I’m not professionally trained in the kitchen. I didn’t learn at my mom’s knee, though I call her several times a week and almost always when I’m trying a complicated recipe. (Shameless plug: she’s also written a cookbook that I refer to now for her recipes.) And I feel accomplished, aligned, when I get it right. When I cook something that I know I ate in my childhood, and the taste brings me back to the dinner table, to picnics with Styrofoam cups of rice and adobo. Last night’s episode of Top Chef was filled with these moments: Carla’s husband telling the table of diners how important food memories are for her, Mike cooking a dish he had made with his grandmother, a dish he hadn’t made in years because he didn’t want to be reminded of missing her.

Food takes me home. It makes my home. I time travel with tastes and I bring these memories to my present. There are many roots to still be traced, to dig into – and new memories, branches to create.

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