I’ve never thought much about my love for food. This weekend, a friend remarked that my blog was a bit impersonal and I scoffed. I thought that nothing was more personal than sharing my vulnerabilities with the world. But after thinking about it, I realized that there was room for me to share a bit more of my personal food story. Here goes.
Corre en la familia (Runs in the Family)
In 1977 I was born at Cedar Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and we lived in what the world at large calls South Central Los Angeles. My first memories of food are set at my grandmothers house. Although I was really skinny and could care less about what I ate, there was always a buzz of excitement surrounding going to my Grandma Bernice’s house. All the adults were excited about the abundance of food that was around. Greens, chitlins, gumbo, macaroni and cheese, dressing, cornbread, rice, yams (regular and candied) green beans and not casserole, but green beans cooked with bacon or a ham hock. The thing that intrigued me most was the dessert table – barely at my eye level, but I could see the German Chocolate cake. I was mesmerized by it. Sure, there were homemade sweet potato and pecan pies, chocolate cake, and probably some Sock it to me and 7up cake, but I didn’t appreciate those flavors at that time. My grandmother would make what looked like a 10 layer (probably 2 or 3) german chocolate cake and she’d frost the heck out of them and then finish it off with whole pecan halves. That was my idea of a ‘slice of heaven’.
My grandmother got immense joy out of feeding her family. She’d sick back and watch us all eat and then ask, “How’d it taste?” or “Taste good?” When she knew that it did. She passed this love of cooking to her daughters (probably my uncle too, but we don’t talk food) and my mom and aunts are phenomenal cooks though they all have different styles. My aunt Barbara makes soul food that reminds me of being back at my grandma’s. Each bite is better than the last. Linda makes my grandma’s meat pies (empanadas or patties in other cultures) and if she wanted, she could literally sell that recipe to Trader Joe’s or Costo and quit her job. Linda lived in Boyle Heights (East LA) she introduced us to El Tepeyac long before it was cool for folks on the Westside to go. Aunt Linda’s lasagna is soo good – I wouldn’t serve it to an Italian, but I love it. For those of you who know me, she is the inspiration for my love of quiche. In fact, the only reason I learned to make them was because she got sick of making them for me and taught me how. Although mine taste good and are inventive – I mean, my roasted cauliflower quiche is a showstopper – hers are better.
My aunt Brenda is an artist both with food and with materials (canvas, etc.) She lived on Blackburn near the Beverly Center and as a little girl I loved visiting her in “Beverly Hills”. Aunt Brenda made a cake whose memory impresses me to this day. It was a chocolate cake adorned with chocolate leaves. She would find naturally beautiful leaves, wash them and then paint melted chocolate on them. After they were dry she would carefully peel off the real leaves and artfully place the chocolate ones atop the cake. I’m still in awe. Aunt Brenda moved to Canada and would come to the states from time to time and we’d visit her on occasion. She was composting in the 80′s, and taught me about the importance of fresh ingredients and introduced me to scones. Scones that she made from scratch with fresh blueberries in our kitchen in South Central. Maybe some of you take this for granted, and I did at the time, but if you think about my neighborhood in 1992 – our markets were not (and probably still are not) carrying the freshest or most varied amount of produce.
My parents were the first real foodies in my life. I am quite certain that we were one of the only families in our neighborhood who shopped at New Meiji market that was in Gardena and ate home made stir fry cooked on a wok with fresh ingredients. My mother taught me the importance of “clean eating” before we knew what that was. She used very little oil, did not use ground beef, baked her fish, skinned her chicken before cooking it, and made EVERYTHING from scratch. No jarred spaghetti sauces for us. My dad makes the most delicious soups and stews – I can’t think of an ingredient he hasn’t used. From ramen noodles, fresh corn, chicken, he can do it all. He is the oldest of 7 kids and says that my Grandmother Mary would often call him from work with instructions on how to prepare dinner for his siblings. Let my dad tell it, he also taught my mom to cook, but I don’t buy that. Speaking of my mom, she passed her love of entertaining and of making cheesecakes to me. I know that making cheesecakes seems random, but my mom was making cheesecake factory type desserts before we’d ever heard of them. Besides the standard fruit toppings, she’d make Hershey’s kiss, lemon swirl, coffee and any other flavors she thought of – and they were all from scratch.
There you have it. Those are the things that laid the groundwork for the foodie I am today. My grandma and parents were the first real influences in my food discovery but where we lived played a huge part. We were taught that the world was literally our oyster and that just because we ate Soul Food at Grandma’s on Saturday, didn’t mean we couldn’t go to El Cholo (the one on Western Ave) on Sunday, and that didn’t stop me from running home after school to have a tortilla w/butter or if I had money, from buying a roasted corn cob from a street vendor and then slathering it with mayo, cotija cheese, cumin and lemon juice. My dad would often bring live crab home for us to eat and we’d have cheesecake for dessert. Eating those great meals was a part of who we were. Our familial culture was that no matter what was happening around us – we knew we’d eat well and that those meals were often linked to our feelings. A new job or promotion? Crab at Del Conte’s in Palos Verdes! Sick? Homemade soup. Company? Pasta with cheesecake and a big salad. Going to grandma’s? Soul Food! I even remember being a teenager who was slumped in a chair and rolling my eyes wishing I didn’t like my moms cooking so much because me not eating would really drive home how mad/upset/sullen/lovesick/forlorn/hormonal I was. Food has literally shaped who I am and helped me not feel like an outsider – I could be comfortable in any neighborhood and with any nationality if I knew and embraced their food because it meant I was appreciating their way of life. Who doesn’t appreciate that?
If you like this and want me to continue to talk about more about my food evolution, please indicate that in the comments section – 20 “Keep going!” comments will get you part 2.
*Addendum Linda and my mom both credit Linda for teaching my mom to make cheesecake. Thanks, Linda!
*Second addendum – my Aunt Karen has confirmed that Uncle Charles does in fact know how and love to cook. He’s taught Aunt K to make Grandma’s gumbo (gumbo off in the future!) and makes outta sight baked beans. And I forgot to add that both my brothers are foodies – I’ll talk more about them later.