say grace

Let’s take a break for a second.

No better place than the kitchen table, right?

Take a break from the mess and exhaustion and day-to-day, and where do a lot of us end up? Right there, at the kitchen table, if we’ve got anything like a kitchen. When I think of the home I want to make someday, I think of the smell of the kitchen–garlic and coffee and yeast and dried peppers–at the heart of it. And when things are rough, I go, like many of us, to comfort food. Hot and sour soup, nursed carefully with a big spoon. Meatloaf with a good old-fashioned Midwestern ketchup glaze. All sorts of stuff probably bad for me but that makes things better, somehow. The kitchen table, no matter where I live, warm in winter, usually with a teapot close to hand, sometimes with a glass of something stiffer, is the center of the home and its warmth.

Food isn’t just a feminist issue when it’s a problem, after all. It’s not just the many of us not getting enough nutrition, not getting access to fresh and nourishing foods; it’s not just the many of us afflicted with eating disorders; it’s not just the messed-up cultural messages we all get about what we put in our bodies. Food is also a vitally important way to look at our connections to each other, to our ideas of family, to our traditions. Look at the way many people identify so elementally with the staple their ancestors have eaten: rice, maize, wheat, potatoes, taro, olives. Look at the way we’re constantly told the myth of the family meal as a binder of loved ones in troubled times. We’re made of the foods we consume, from the very beginning. Pathologized or not, the food matters.

So have a seat.

My mother won’t give me the family adobo recipe.

The magnitude of this is probably lost on a lot of you. Let me widen the lens for a moment.

Adobo is a big deal, a cultural touchstone. More than any other Filipino dish, adobo serves as something of a symbol of the whole cuisine, with many regional variations and family traditions in its preparation. It’s embraced as an emblem of Pin@y pride and cultural continuity. My mother’s adobo recipe came from her father, and probably his mother, and hers before that. It has the same basic ingredients that any other adobo has, sure; but the balances, the subtleties, those are ours. They become part of that long chain of family feeding each other, coming together for a warm, filling meal. I crave it pretty regularly; so far I’ve only found one place in the whole city that even serves Filipino adobo, and I can’t make it right by myself. Not without the recipe. The store-bought versions aren’t good enough.

My dad would probably give me his charoset recipe, if I asked. (Don’t knock it. That stuff is good, I tell you, “lumpy paste” description notwithstanding. Especially when you’ve been fasting. And hey, what’re a nice Jewish girl’s oldschool alternatives? Gefilte?) My mom would probably even be willing to offer up those comfort foods she inherited from her Norski foster family: meatloaf, pot roast, scalloped potatoes, tuna noodle casserole. Those are good, and they matter to me. I go running to them, too, the same way I insist on making the candied yams every Thanksgiving if they’ll let me.

None of those are the family adobo, though, the pungent, tangy, long-cooked wonder that came from my grandfather, who is gone away West and who I wanted to know better while he was still alive. None of these give me that same overwhelming continuity that says, you are a part of a long story of family, proud, interconnected–and it tastes good.

And I don’t have that family recipe, though I’ve asked many times. “You can look it up in a cookbook,” says my mother. “There’s a million recipes.” “Yeah, Mom,” I say. “But I want to make it like you do.”

On some level, denying that recipe to me is not just what it looks like. It’s a sideways way of saying–though I doubt she would ever cop to meaning such a thing–you are no child of mine. Learn it from someone else, from a cookbook, buy it in a store. I won’t include you in that long family story. You don’t get to know. There’s a million ways to make it–a million families for you to belong to–a million traditions that could be yours. But you don’t get this one.

I’ve never really figured out why this is. Part of me wonders if it’s an assimilation thing, an edging closer to whiteness by habit; my mother has always told me, anyhow, that I’m the whitest of her children, and these things connect up no matter how many times we realize that we both love longasina and lumpia and pancit. Maybe it’s closer to the way my grandparents, when they came over, refused to teach their children their mother tongues so they would learn English better.

Part of me thinks it’s because of my transition; it’s no problem that my brothers cook, it was never a problem that I cooked and baked growing up, but somehow maybe my mother sees my enthusiasm in the kitchen not as a love of family, but as a misplaced desire to inhabit a homemaking feminine stereotype. Maybe she’s trying to keep me from being a certain kind of woman; maybe in resisting teaching me, in the same way that she cut me off from the family business shortly after I came out, she is resisting acknowledging or having a mother-daughter relationship at all, as though letting me near a stove would be giving in and accepting the state of things.

I reach harder for family, a daughter and granddaughter of uncertain provenance and future, adrift. Maybe she doesn’t see that when she pulls back and says, “look, why don’t you just buy a cookbook?” Maybe it’s just reflexes. I don’t know.

Our blood runs with the grains and meats and vegetables and spices of our ancestors. We breathe in the smells of their cookfires and exhale them back. Every cell of us is made of what we, and our mothers, have eaten, every curry, every soup-stock, every glass of lemonade. We’re not all salt-water, after all. It’s more like a broth. And when we’re at a loss, we go to where all that makes sense, where we can put in a pinch of something that will change the flavor of our day–some new innovation, some old grandmother’s trick. We go to the kitchen.

I’d tell you to think about it, but if you’re doing it right, you’re hungry already.

Good. Let’s eat.


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26 comments for “say grace

  1. Jess
    August 9, 2007 at 1:44 am

    I’ve written about this before, but my roommates have influenced my cooking and eating styles more thoroughly than my biological family ever has. While I will always have a soft spot in my belly for overly dry steak and this wide egg noodle dish with cream cheese, the people I lived with during and after college have made the greater impact. It was only after leaving my parents’ house that I actually learned to like cooking, because it was only then that I actually had free rein in the kitchen. (I’d go into detail, but it seems overly indulgent.)

    Our new housemate was bewildered by our refrigerator wall of spices, sticking to All Purpose Sauce before finally asking for help (I hope I channeled you well when she asked for advice navigating the waters). This afternoon though, she pulled out the siracha, splashed it across her rice and excitedly announced, “I’m becoming one of you!” Spices: a true hallmark of our house?

  2. August 9, 2007 at 1:49 am

    For me, cooking and serving a meal is, first and foremost, a way to bring together people you love and give them something you can share. If a meal’s missing that, it’s missing something important. It’s sort of like how I don’t like drinking without toasting.
    It’s about nutrition, sure, but much more than that it’s about connecting people to each other.

  3. Jess
    August 9, 2007 at 2:03 am

    And by “our house”, I obviously mean “this family we have devised.” In addition to creating intentional families, perhaps we create our own culture as well. (The only real cultural food anecdote my family has is when my father vowed he would never expect his future children to eat lutefisk.)

  4. piny
    August 9, 2007 at 3:24 am

    I told you so.

    My family has some pretty awful longstanding culinary traditions (one of our most special heirloom dishes is pot roast). But I did spend a lot of my childhood bonding over cooking with my dad–and we still make meals together when we get the chance. For him, cooking means time off to relax at home with your family; when I was growing up, we didn’t really do sit-down meals during the week.

    And developing this sort of relationship to food–loving, voluptuous, comfortable, proud, communal–was one of the things that helped me get over my eating disorder.

  5. car
    August 9, 2007 at 6:24 am

    It’s presumptuous to say when I don’t know anything about your family, but her resistance may be more about holding her place than about keeping you out of it. I know many matriarchs who kept their best recipes to their chest to their dying day because that was one solid thing to hold onto, the one big contribution they could make to the family that no one else could. Giving it away to anyone would be relinquishing the symbolic need the family had for them. Just a thought.

  6. Louise
    August 9, 2007 at 6:33 am

    I also understand the connection of food, culture and family; one of my most cherished possessions is a 100+/- page notebook full of my great-grandmother’s recipes. She was a professional cook during the Depression. Copies of her original recipes were given only to my branch years ago with the expressed caveat that we never reveal to my grandmother’s sisters that we had them, which always seemed wrong to me.

  7. Hawise
    August 9, 2007 at 8:10 am

    I think that I am with car on this one. I belong to a church where as a junior female (only in my 40s) I am unworthy to be in the kitchen. I may serve but not cook. The transition of family recipes is a strange one and involves factors that only exist in the matriarch’s head. The best way to learn is to find the time and patience to help her in the kitchen, oh and watch her like a hawk, matriarchs are sneaky about the prized family recipes.

  8. car
    August 9, 2007 at 8:44 am

    I even knew one woman who went so far as to go ahead and *reluctantly* give up the recipe to select family members, but they mysteriously never could make it “just like mom” – she’d always just shrug and say it wasn’t that hard, she didn’t know why they couldn’t.
    Then after she died, they finally found the original handwritten recipe. She had left two major spices out of the version she gave everyone else. Not just once on accident, but every single time she had written it down for someone.

  9. August 9, 2007 at 8:55 am

    I am so sad for you that you are missing that recipe. I hope you can sneak into her kitchen and put it together someday.

    My mother was a pastry chef. When she retired, she handed me her handwritten recipes, still covered in flour and crusty egg splatter. (Under pain of death if I ever give those recipes out, btw.) That book is like gold to me! It’s just full of cheesecakes and tortes and flans, with all my moms little tricks to make them better than most people.

    I felt the same way when my I inherited my husbands Finnish grandmothers recipes for pasties and various breads. Recipes that traveled from their family homestead in Finland generations before. I felt like I was being welcomed into a long history of wonderfully strong and loving women.

  10. Linnaeus
    August 9, 2007 at 9:30 am

    Makes me wish I’d gotten my grandmother’s recipe for pierogi and bigos. But she died when I was too young to really understand the cultural significance of the foods she made.

  11. August 9, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Forgive my ignorance, is Pin@y an inclusive way of saying “Pinoy” and “Pinay” or does it mean something else?

  12. Laurel
    August 9, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I eat out of the microwave. As an adopted tomboy type, I was not willing to take anything my mom had to hand down. The older I get, the more I see both how wrong and how right that stance was.

  13. August 9, 2007 at 10:42 am

    When I read this, I couldn’t help but think of my mom. One of the first women to get a chemistry degree from her college, she always said that food was chemistry you could eat. And food was huge in her life. When she was going through the Catholic marriage prep course with my dad in the 70’s, and the priest asked what they thought could be problems in their relationship, she said food. He looked confused, so she expanded to say that they grew up eating different things (she was Italian, he was Irish) and that it would be a big adjustment. I have no idea what answer the priest was expecting, and I don’t know how he reacted once she explained it, but she always thought food was more than just fuel for your body, and so do I.

    I don’t know why she didn’t have my aunt’s recipe for candied yams. They’ve been a huge part of my holiday life – when thirty or fourty members of the family get together every year and eat and talk for hours, even if we don’t see each other the rest of the year. I don’t think it was anything sinister, and I don’t think my aunt was commenting on her in particular, but I do know what she did about it. She experimented with the recipe – she was a chemist – for years and years, making minute changes every time to the ingredients, the preparation, and the temperature until she had it right.

    Right, of course, is relative. I don’t know if she makes yams the way her aunt did. But she makes them the way she thinks her aunt did. It’s like she’s come up with a way to make a dream of candied yams.

    It takes a lot of patience. Years of it. But experimenting with the recipe – working it until you get to the adobo that’s equal parts reality and memory – may be more delicious to you in the end than just getting the recipe. There’s no way you can arrive at your own recipe without it reflecting the adobo you grew up on.

    I wonder whether it would help or even just start a converstaion if you did this. Working at it, asking your mother to taste it if she ever comes to visit, telling her that you made your own, not that you got it out of a box or just replicated something that was in Martha Stewart Living’s “Exotic Comforts” issue or something. I am no expert on what you’re going through, but I know food and my family, at least. And food is always something we can talk about.

  14. ks
    August 9, 2007 at 11:00 am

    My mom made up a recipe book a few years ago with all the recipes her mom and some of the other women of that generation had given her once she got married (most of them have passed away by now, which makes it a lot more precious). And then she gave a copy to each of her sisters, and them my sisters and I when we moved out. I treasure that book. It has all the comfort food I grew up with in it–all the biscuits, soups, casseroles, etc., that are just delicious and that really say something about where I come from. And then when I got married and showed an interest in Sri Lankan food, my mother in law gave me all her recipes (that came from her mother, etc.). A couple of years ago I took all of her recipes, plus those my mom gave out and a few of my own, and made up a recipe book for the family. I also plan to do the same for my sons when they grow up. (And I submitted several of them to Lauren for her HUHO project, if anyone is interested).

    I just don’t understand that attitude of keeping these things to yourself. Sure, I take pride in being a good cook and being able to make nourishing, delicious food for those I love (or anyone else who happens to be hungry). And I like the ego boost that it gives me when someone compliments me on my cooking. But I would never keep that knowledge of how to make things to myself. Because food is community and ancestry and culture and love, all wrapped up in a wonderful tasting package. And it is meant to be shared.

  15. August 9, 2007 at 11:59 am

    The whole idea of secret family recipes is competitive and foolish, and cuts us off from our sources.

    I hope you get the adobo recipe, copy it a thousand times and give it to one thousand people you love. Our families’ culinary heritages should bring and offer joy, not derision and pain.

  16. August 9, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    I know the feeling, here. My Nan isn’t very happy with the way my life is going at the moment, and she’s stopped sharing her recipes with me. When I was younger she taught me how to make her fruit cake that would keep for 10 years, and would only get better wit time, like a fine wine. She showed me how to make blini for my grandad and how to craft paper-thin sugar flowers.

    But now, she won’t share her plum wine recipe, or her secret to making good bread.

    Luckily. she had already taught my mum most of these things, so I just go to her!

    Do you have any siblings who might be sympathetic enough to get he recipe for you? I know that the symbolism of sharing the recipe with your mum would be lost, but at least you’d get that good comfort food! And if she ever decides to tell you herself, you can pretend you didn’t already know it…

  17. August 9, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    my grandmother made the best chopped liver this world has ever known. she died with the recipe. i will say though, that she told me her secret ingredient before she passed. of course, these days, few will eat chopped liver – one could feel their arteries harden from the abundance of cholesterol in that dish.

    she did give my sister her recipe for turkey gravy, an act that angered my mother to no end.

    perhaps it has to do with the fact that knowledge is power, and these recipes represent the little they have.

  18. ryan
    August 9, 2007 at 3:20 pm

    i think some of the commenters are correct – these recipes equal power. they represent strength, creativity, self worth. although silly i can see where some women would fight hard to hold on to them in an effort to hold on to that power.

    thankfully, my grammie doesn’t behave like that and actively encourages me to learn the family food traditions before she’s “done with this place”, as she likes to say.

    my grammie makes the BEST yeast rolls on the planet. we have made batches of this old yankee recipe side by side and hers are always better! she jokes that it is the temperature of her hands or that her butter came from the middle of the butter bin in the fridge and not the back like mine. but i know what it is that makes hers better – the love, the memories, the fact that SHE made them. mine haven’t had time to sit in a place of legacy. and that’s okay with me.

  19. Bitter Scribe
    August 9, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    My mother, at age 87, has finally stopped cooking dinner every night for my mentally handicapped brother (who lives with her full-time) and my invalid sister (who lives with her half the year). My sis has taken over the cooking, and Mom has finally yielded some of her long-held recipes.

    One of these is a tomato-based pasta sauce, laced with cinnamon and cloves, that is just to die for. (It’s called kapama—a good choice next time you’re in a Greek restaurant.) My sis was astonished to learn how easy it is to make. Maybe that’s why your Mom is cagy, Little Light–she wants to preserve her mystique, as Car said.

  20. August 9, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Exactly, Elaine. You’ll see “Latin@,” “Filipin@,” and so on cropping up as well. Means neither comes first, among other things.

    Man, pierogi, kapama, blini…y’all are making me hungry.

  21. August 9, 2007 at 7:40 pm

    When I was little, we used to visit my aunts Gertrude and Ascencion (in reality, my father’s godfather’s wife and her sister, living together after they were widowed) for tea and cookies. Man, those cookies. Better than any bakery, Ascenscion would make batches for us to eat and then take home. And she wrote out recipes, but we’re convinced she left things out – and now she’s long gone, and we can’t make them. At some point I want to engage in reconstructive baking experimentation to try and find the “right” way, but my taste buds hardly remember anymore.

    On the other side, we have my grandmother’s recipe file box, stuffed with index cards and magazine clippings and even some folded sheets of notepaper with planned menus for dinner parties. Our Thanksgiving cranberry chutney, the Christmas brandy balls (hee) that we give to friends, the potatoes served with the Easter lamb… it’s tradition and family and I love it.

    Also, charoset was always my favorite part of Passover! That may have been because we went to seders with a couple of other families and they were… indifferent cooks, at best.

  22. i.am.e
    August 9, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    It’s embraced as an emblem of Pin@y pride and cultural continuity.

    I’m reading this from Manila, and it’s interesting that I’ve never felt that way about adobo or any other Philippine dish. Maybe this has something to do with me being here all my life and you being outside of the Philippines. I just never thought of adobo or its preparation as something so fraught with identity.

    Or it might simply be because adobo is not a popular dish in the Visayas, where my mother is from. My mother learned how to cook adobo in Manila. My grandmother’s recipe came from her. :)

  23. August 9, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    I think that makes perfect sense, i.am.e. There are a lot of cultural touchstone that I can think of that matter a great deal to the diaspora, and not to folks in the Old Country, as it were. That’s part of why I emphasized the Pin@y thing–as I’ve seen it, it’s a name I’ve seen embraced much more by Phillipine-Americans than by actual, born-and-raised Filipin@s.
    It might be regional, too; most of my family’s from Luzon, after all.

    Either way, if it’s around you all the time, you never get a chance to miss it, and I’m not surprised it doesn’t take on any fraught-identity status. When you’re reaching out for a connection to your ancestors, these things pop out, but if you extended family isn’t a world away, it’s probably not nearly such a big deal.

  24. August 10, 2007 at 3:50 am

    Hungry, NOW!

  25. August 10, 2007 at 3:53 am

    Something called Pasti Pie, potatoes layered with throw away meat and covered with biscuits and seasoned only with butter, salt, and pepper is my family legacy. That and peanut butter pineapple cookies, or some such…

    I’ve always looked down on them for their blandness because I saw them as symptoms of our being poor. But as I get older, I long for them.

  26. August 13, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    My mom wouldn’t teach me to cook. My first shot at it was training to be the baker on a Bruderhof/Hutterite commune.

    So, when I left, I had one good recipe, but it was for 55 loaves. Every girl’s gotta start somewhere, I suppose.

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