September 16, 2009

A Story in Every Dish

Most of my fondest memories in life revolve around food. Oddly, I grew up in a Hispanic household where the action in the kitchen was nonexistent. When I think Hispanic, I think of an abundance of food around the table at all times: tacos, tamales, pollo, arroz y frijoles. But with a single mom working two jobs, the closest thing we had to home cooked meals was picked up at the nearest drive-through.

As the oldest daughter, I often played the mom role. Whether or not my mom had time to cook for us, I was in charge of finding a way to feed my younger sister when she yelled “tengo hambreeeee.” I quickly discovered that you only need a few ingredients to make a successful meal and avoid starvation.

Every day after school, I always provided two options on the menu: quesadillas y salchichas con limón y chile or sopa de Maruchan. I still remember fondly the crunchy flour tortillas oozing with cheddar and jack cheese alongside two savory hot dog links cut into perfect rounds, swimming in a pool of spicy and sour drippings, sprinkled with salt. ¡Para chuparte los dedos! And on the days we felt lazy, dinner was the sopa de Maruchan.

That experience was my first introduction to the kitchen. Those moments with my sister also helped me realize how important the kitchen is, especially to Hispanic culture. When tias came to visit or when I went to a friend’s house, the kitchen was the main attraction. This is where we cooked, but more importantly, where we laughed, shared chismes, reminisced on childhood memories and connected as a family. This is where the stories were created and told.

As I grew up, I became envious of people who could just whip a couple of things together and create a mouth-watering dish. They made it seem so easy. And when I would ask questions, the responses always started the same way: “tantita agua, una pisca de sal, una mano de arroz y tantita cebolla.” Huh? How much is a splash, a handful and a pinch? And for some reason, measuring cups and spoons never existed.

So I turned to other resources: TV and books. I soon realized that if I could read and follow directions, one day I would really be able to cook. Fast-forward past a couple of bad dishes and the time I set my mom’s oven on fire on Mother’s day, and now I’ve become the acclaimed cook in my household.

I don’t think I would have believed anyone who told me when I was younger that Food PR was in my future. Now I have my own stories to share in the kitchen.

Have you ever noticed how people are quick to jump into conversation when the topic of food comes up? That’s because the topic of food helps people learn, bond and connect in a unique way.

Recently, we gathered mommy bloggers to cook their countries’ dishes in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. It took some effort to finish the recipes, especially when everyone had a different way of making them. “We add cheese to our tacos,” (Noooo, that’s a quesadilla!). “The Arroz con Pollo needs saffron,” (No, then it becomes Paella). “Arroz con Leche should be made with condensed milk, not regular milk,” (It really just depends on how sweet you want it). The friendly squabbling continued with each bite. Four hours - and possibly four pounds – later, we came to an agreement. GO BACK TO THE ORIGINAL RECIPE! We just added a splash and a pinch of a few ingredients and enjoyed the bonding in the kitchen.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many talented cooks during my time here. And what’s been most remarkable about the experience is the stories that are told through these delicious creations - whether or not a measuring cup was involved. The result, invariably, is connectedness.

Like my Grandma always says “Si te sientas a comer un plato, eres parte de la familia.”

What foods/recipes bring back your best childhood memories?


Cynthia Perez said...

Great story Allison. I too have countless memories of our family kitchen. EVERYTHING important happens in the kitchen: stories are told, recipes swapped and on the rarest of occasions, family secrets revealed (my aunt briefly married a family friend to legalize her status in the US...scandalous, I know!)

My sister and I had to learn early to fend for ourselves, as both parents worked. As soon as we got home, we'd lock the door behind us, call my mom and she would walk us, step by step, on how to make sopa de arroz, frijoles fritos and even caldo de rez!

As we grew older, she and I cooked for our friends and family. In my twenties, we were the ones puting together Thanksgiving (with salsa and tortillas, of course!) I'd whip up incredibly elaborate appetizers (lobster bisque), entrees (fennel poached salmon), and desserts (meyer lemon creme brulee); despite the great food, I would get just as much praise for a simple paella or even my spicy sopes...who knew? I still love to whip up impressive menus, but mostly depend on the quick comfort recipes for everyday.

I know that in the near future, our own family will have a treasure trove of memories to share with the next generation. And so it goes on.

Buen provecho! cp

Jennifer Vides said...

When I went back to El Salvador many years after leaving, I sat at my aunt's beach house with my dad with some jocotes. I bit into the jocote and suddenly remembered a bunch of stuff from childhood at that beach house. Dad and I talked about them for an hour!