Thursday, June 01, 2006

On American food. cooking/eating.

I grew up in a Chinese household. Aside from the occasional lasagne or pasta dish, or this weird chicken casserole made from a recipe that was clearly from 1960's Americana (it involved chicken, orange juice, golden mushroom soup, and Lipton onion soup mix, among other things), we ate Chinese food. Period. Thanksgiving was the exception, but that was the domain of my father and I, the one meal we cooked together while my mother disappeared elsewhere in the house. Therefore American food has always seemed mysterious, exotic, completely removed from my world.

Growing up, my only experience with American food came from the school cafeteria - macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy (completely different from our Thanksgiving turkey - and we rarely had mashed pototoes, preferring to make Julia Child's potato gratin), grilled cheese sandwiches. Or in diners, family-style restaurants during road trips and vacations. Potato salad came in a plastic tub from the supermarket, baked beans came from the fried chicken place (along with, well, fried chicken. and biscuits), and chicken noodle soup came from a can. I would read books like Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, cookbooks by Julia Child and Martha Stewart, searching for clues to this mystery of American cuisine. American home cooking. I would ask my friend what she had for dinner (You mean your mom cooks with butter? Like, actually cooks with it?). She was so horrified that I'd never had home-made pie (which is not to say we never baked; we made cakes and cookies and brownies, but I think neither of my parents cared for pie) that one Thanksgiving a few years ago her mother made me three miniature pies - pumpkin and sweet potato and Marlborough.

All of this changed when I began to live alone. I could experiment, with my parents halfway around the world. I tried different recipes for macaroni and cheese. I made meatloaf for the first time ever when I was twenty-four, and potato salad. I finally bought a potato masher and made mashed potatoes almost weekly. When I get a craving, I make my own (oven-)fried chicken, my own cheeseburgers. French onion soup, chicken noodle soup (with carrots and celery and onions, not the scallion-scented chicken soup of my childhood, with noodles instead of cubes of tofu) simmered on the stove. It was as though suddenly I could give into all the cravings and longings from my childhood, indulge in all the things that were - denied is not the right word - completely out of my culinary realm.

And yet, now that I have had my fill of these American things, I long for my mother's cooking and the foods of my childhood. Maybe I will go back to the dishes I grew up with, braised pork with tofu or daikon radish, dried tofu stir-fried with vegetables, fish steamed with ginger and scallions, eggplant stewed with minced garlic and soy sauce, broiled chicken wings glazed with a soy marinade, rice instead of pasta and potatoes and bread.

No comments: