I had these smoked turkey necks in the freezer and a bag of pinto beans I needed to use up. I decided to throw them together into the pressure cooker and see how they'd come out. Later that night my boyfriend came over for dinner. I had made my usual: braised chicken breasts with garlic and tomatoes, stewed kidney beans, steamed white rice and some sauteed green beans. I asked him if he wanted to try some of my smoked pinto beans too. He did. I threw a few spoonfuls on the plate as well.
I had already eaten, so I sat with him to keep him company, keeping an ear out for my 6 year old daughter in the bathtub. I watched as he took a bite then pushed his food about the plate a bit. "I experimented with the seasoning of the pinto beans. They came out more smoky than I would have liked, but I like them. Are they okay?" He nods and begins to speak to me about his mother. He has two moms: one is his biological mother, the other his step-mother. By his tone, I knew he was speaking of his step-mother because his voice seemed wistful in remembering her. When she passed he was unable to go home to Brazil and attend her funeral.
"My mother used to cook on this forno a lenha. I don't know how to say that in English. It's an oven outside." I realize it's similar to horno de leña or barro in Spanish, an adobe or brick oven that is outside and fueled with wood (leña). "Whenever she cooked in it the food would taste smoky, like the wood. The beans remind me of her. She was an excellent cook." When I looked into his eyes I realized he was crying. He continued to cry while he finished the rest of his dinner.
Food is powerful. We know that food can make us more healthy or make us sick. When we say "we are what we eat" is not just that food fuels us from a nutritional standpoint but it also fuels us from a human developmental and emotional standpoint. Food is who we are, for better or for worse. I am perhaps a little more aji de gallina than I am pierogies but they both define me.
I am also fast food, frozen chicken pot pies, toaster oven pizza, and mom's meaty tomato sauce over spaghetti or her 30 pound lasagna. When we all are growing up, food, or the lack of it, feeds our relationships with people, our concepts of home and family, it reveals to us where we have privileges and access and also where and when we do not. Food shows us whether we are similar to the other people around us or if we are different. Food, or the lack of it, again, makes concrete our memories of when we were young and sometimes how we access those memories as we get further away from them. It defines who we are culturally, economically, spiritually, and racially. It can define our gender and the roles associated with them: motherhood, provider, the one bringing home "the bacon," the one who always smells of garlic, onions and rice.
Some of my earliest and most pleasant childhood memories include many precious moments that taught me about family, about teaching and learning, about adults trusting me or not, about paying attention and living in the moment. I can still vividly recall the day my father taught me how to eat my first mango. The times my Nana, my mother's mother, asked me to pick the peas for her by the side of the house on the Cape or when she let me mix the blueberries into the pancake batter, always sneaking a few in my mouth until she scolded me. I loved the days my mother would bring us to the North End of Boston, pick up some bread, cheese and salami and eat it up with me, my sister and my father on the banks of the Charles River. How many days did I spend playing in my elementary school park and picking blackberries off a tree on the top of the hill and only leaving when my fingers and lips were sufficiently stained purple? Or when I would walk home from school and eat some neighbor's grapes that had grown over the top of their fence? I would pop the grape's flesh out of its skin, my mouth watering at the anticipation of its tart and sweet flavors, then crunch on the seeds and lick the sweet juices off my finger tips until I reached the backdoor of our apartment building.
As I've gotten older, I have had the privilege of being able to afford to eat out quite a lot over the years. I have always preferred "hole in the wall" places over the fancy ones. I have also always loved being able to sneak peeks inside the kitchen. I loved meeting the owners and/or chefs because I felt the extension of community through knowing them. I didn't really start cooking regularly until I lived in a more rural part of the my home state, Massachusetts, in my late 20s and early 30s. I became curious to see if I could duplicate some of the flavors and experiences I had at home. I began by teaching myself first how to cook aji de gallina, papas a la huancaina, seco de res but also pernil, habichuelas guisadas and arroz con gandules, as I was surrounded by Puerto Rican and Dominican people and restaurants at the time.
My ex-husband is African American so I got my black eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, smothered chicken, and collard greens on point (though the mac and cheese was really his thing!). I taught myself how to make sushi, pad thai, Vietnamese curried fried rice and stir-fry. I consumed as many cookbooks and TV cooking shows as I could. I got my repertoire down and threw parties, feeding people and trying to create community. We never had much money but I knew these moments created intimacy, opportunities for laughter, listening to music together, and hours-long spades or domino-playing, which included a lot of sh*t-talking (always my favorite part of the night). Food is the excuse to bring us together, and then the rest just simply follows. And you know what? We didn't even drink (nor do we now), so it really was the food, never the booze, that created those moments and those memories.
I knew people enjoyed my cooking but it wasn't until the night with my boyfriend, described above, that I truly realized the responsibility a cook or chef possibly carries. We can bring the history of our ancestors forward, if we choose. Sure, I can learn French and Italian cuisine. I went to culinary school (I can brunoire a carrot as good as any chef!) but what happens if I choose to carry the complicated story of my ancestors through my knife, my pot, my kitchen, my plate? What if my ancestors' stories are similar or connected to yours? Do we remember together? Do we feel together? Do we become more intimate, in that communal sharing of embodied knowledge, in the consumption of our culture and very often our mother's powerful hands? I believe so.
So, I waited a week or so to ask my boyfriend about that dinner and those beans. I had checked on him that night too, but I came back around to it after we both had a little space. I said, "That was a powerful food memory moment, wasn't it?" He said, "Yes, it was." I then asked him if he would mind if I wrote about what happened because I simply couldn't stop thinking about his face, the tears, and the place in my heart that opened up. I felt closer to him for it. He shared something about his mother with me he had never shared before. He said, "I hadn't thought about that in a long time." He then said it was fine. Even if I mention his name. Even if I post a picture. So, here's to food, to remembering our ancestors, to tears of joy, tears of cleansing, and to the making of new memories.
My boyfriend and Kahlo, 2018.