It was just salt.
December 1, 2016 11:46 AM   Subscribe

When you emigrate, you end up the last person to touch a lot of your family history. Somewhere along the line, we’ll forget my mom’s maiden name. We’ll forget what her actual name was before she changed it when she moved. We’ll lose language and the way to make a candle from ghee and a cotton ball. I can’t pull all of this information out of her, and I can’t carry all of it after she’s gone, and I panic when I think about how impossible it feels to one day not need her. But at least I can try to cook.
posted by ChuraChura (17 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
My daughters adopted Martha Stewart as their anima totem, kitchen goddess. They both cook. So we have different styles, but they make a couple of my dishes.
posted by Oyéah at 1:08 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a delightful, delightful, delightful article, full of humor and love and real writerly skill. It also made me grin a lot, because apparently this lady's mom and my Chinese mom share similar attitudes towards recipe sharing. :D
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:31 PM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I learnt to cook from my Dad, who has zero recipes and never makes anything the same way twice. So I basically learnt more of a general philosophy towards cooking than specific recipes or techniques. I've asked him many times how he makes his Matzah balls, but I've never managed to make mine as good as his, and I've never even tried to emulate his Feijoada.
I really need to get my mom to teach me to make sopaipillas and empanadas, though.
posted by signal at 1:46 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

By the way, in contrast to most articles, read the comments. Aside from one where some (white?) dude is humblebragging about his ability to cook, they're actually pretty delightful.
Also, mom would ask something like "how long do you boil the dumplings?" and grandma would answer "as long as it takes to smoke a Pall Mall."
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:07 PM on December 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

Good article. My mother is a very good cook but she's lost interest in it as she's gotten older. I need to learn how to make her sweet potato pie, mine never tastes as good.
posted by shoesietart at 2:19 PM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

What a great essay. As a writer, she's got her spices nailed. Just enough sharp to cut the sweet.
posted by Diablevert at 2:24 PM on December 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Trying to figure out how to cook something from my mom:
Me: How much sugar with the zereshk?
Mom: Just, you know, enough.
Me: How much is enough?
Mom: I don't know, just... enough. Get out of the kitchen.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 2:31 PM on December 1, 2016 [17 favorites]

That's such a lovely piece. I'm stoked to see that Koul will have an essay collection out next year (something to look forward to in 2017, yay).
posted by mixedmetaphors at 6:57 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

That is beautiful. Food is history and culture. My father's mother, who was a poor Iowa farmer's wife, who always longed for her first husband and to live in town, made the best sticky buns in all the land. My sister and I tried to learn the recipe, but she took the magic with her. Maybe out of spite, hard to tell.
posted by eggkeeper at 10:29 PM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Lovely story.
My gran had that attitude. I realized that she might eventually die when she turned 80, in 2000, and began to seriously work on getting those recipes and techniques. But she resisted as if her life depended on it. Now I think she didn't want to admit to herself that she was mortal, and like the author suggests about her mother, it was a way for her to keep us coming back home. When she was widowed and gradually needed more help, she started to have me cook for her, and I learned a lot of stuff. But the brown gravy she made for hamburgers was elusive. She'd always find some excuse to get us out of the kitchen when she made it. At some point I managed to get the ingredients, but still not the technique. Then she died three years ago. Apart from the grief, we realized that we might never taste that brown gravy again, but I've carried on with the experiments, and this Tuesday, I suddenly made it! Not that I am telling you how. But perseverance is a good thing.
posted by mumimor at 4:26 AM on December 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

This was great. Thank you for sharing!

In my family (European, came to US after WWII), it wasn't just emigration that weakened the bond. It was the rationing in the interwar period and the Depression before the emigration. Our family recipe secrets are things like "thin out the eggs with water" or how to coax the last bit of edibility out of stale bread. We benefit from knowing what mushrooms you can pick wild with poisoning yourself, but lost out on all sorts of regional Swiss food because the trail just... petered out with my grandmother. Who hated to cook anyway, possibly because she became an adult at a time when cooking was not a joyful yummy secret from your parents, but a meager calculation of what you could do with your one half an egg per week ration.
posted by alligatorpear at 5:58 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Once, when I tried to make her rogan josh, I ended up adding three times the right amount of cinnamon; my lamb tasted like an angry ginger snap. Two years after that, she casually mentioned that you’re only supposed to use flat cinnamon sticks, and not the rolled up ones, which apparently makes a fucking difference.

Thanks for this article - it's lovely.

My American kids have Indian last names, and a steady diet of Indian food that I cook, but very little connection otherwise to their Indian heritage. I wonder if it's just me making sure they fit in, or ...?
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:02 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Food is often the very last bond that breaks, I feel.
Yep. We're down to two particular ethnic dishes (one with a specific regional variation), but they came over in the 1870s. My great-grandmother (first-gen American who learned it from her immigrant mother) taught my grandmother, who taught my uncle, who taught me. I will teach my son.
posted by erst at 9:23 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

We thankfully have many of my Polish grandmother's handwritten recipes - she was so generous about passing them down that she taught her Italian daughter-in-law (my mother) how to make them all. The language was not passed down, the pronunciation of our last name got Americanized, but we still have the (all holiday-based -- Christmas Eve and Easter) food traditions. The names of the dishes are the only Polish words I know, I have no idea how to spell most of them, and like in this article some of them are so regionalized that I'm not even sure if they are "correct." The recipes are fairly regionalized too - for example, our cheese pierogi have no potato in them.

Mmmmmm, pierogi...
posted by misskaz at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2016

Oh, this hit me where I live.

Thanks for sharing.
posted by seyirci at 10:04 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Growing up, my parents were already multiple generations away from their immigrant ancestors, so we didn't have a cuisine like the author's. But there was Saturday mornings and pancakes almost every week. There was no recipe (egg+milk+flour will stick together in almost any proportion), but they came out great every time. I eventually somehow learned the recipe through osmosis and trial and error (I have no idea how much of any ingredient actually goes in, except the butter, which is an ounce or two or maybe three). I was visiting my parents about six or seven years ago and out of nostalgia, I asked my dad to make pancakes. He hadn't done it in ages, but he was game, so he went to work. And the results were wretched. They were splitting in half, leaking a milk and flour combination on the plate despite the sides being the right shade of brown. He had forgotten the egg. I remember trying to get him to give me the recipe in numbers at one point in time, but he just didn't know. This was something that he had known intrinsically, something that he knew by sight, not by measurement, and he had lost it. I remember being slightly shocked and rather disappointed. It turns out that if I had wanted my dad's pancakes, I had to make them myself.

This is all colored with the fact that he died a few years later. This wasn't a sign of decline, just a sign of time passed. He never made pancakes for himself or my mom and had simply forgotten all the steps. But in retrospect, it does feel like I was taking on something, not a mantle (it's a simple recipe, something to please a kid in the morning), but that this was no longer part of his life. It feels like a foreshadowing of his mortality, although I may just be projecting that back onto it now. And this is probably why I judge the recipes I see for pancakes as superfluous or incorrect when I see them online. And why I have such contempt for pancake mix.

I still make those pancakes (and waffles) and I'll happily show anyone how it's done. (It's easy, just flour, milk, eggs, butter, baking powder, stuff that most American households have) But I still don't know the proportions and I honestly never really want to know.
posted by Hactar at 1:50 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

> Trying to figure out how to cook something from my mom:
Me: How much sugar with the zereshk?
Mom: Just, you know, enough.

Hah. My mum's version of this, having grown up in Malaysia, is "you know, aga aga!"
posted by lucidium at 3:01 PM on December 2, 2016

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