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.