The food we eat right now

September 30, 2011

Jacob made his own breakfast Thursday morning. He makes quinoa pasta for himself most mornings, but because we were hanging around the house waiting to go to services, he got a little more elaborate.

“Can I fry some tofu?” he asked with his head in the fridge. I get this extra-firm tofu we crumble and pan-fry.

“Sure,” I said.

He pulled green onion and sweet peppers out of the bin and shoyu out of the door. “Wait, how about the cabbage pickle? Can I fry that?” he asked.

“I’d fry the other stuff and then put the pickle on at the end,” I said. It’s the cabbage, onion, ginger and chile pickle I made for the banh mi the other day.

He cut up the vegetables and put it all in the hot frying pan with some shoyu. The green onion smelled great.

“Wait! The nori!” he yelled. He got out a sheet of nori and lined his dish with it. When the tofu was cooked he put it on top of the nori sheet and sprinkled the cabbage on top.

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

He made this beautiful breakfast with stuff he scrounged out of the refrigerator. He had to peel some gross parts off the week-old green onion and he had to remember that we had nori sheets in the snack cupboard. I knew that all these ingredients were in the house, but I didn’t imagine making this breakfast with them. He took what was available to him and cooked something with it.

We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

On TV, Rick Bayless is doing a whole season of Mexico One Plate at a Time from Baja California. The rest of Mexico is tropical, he explains, but Baja has a Mediterranean climate. It’s dry in the summer and wet in the winter. He stood on a hill with olive groves and lamb flocks and gestured. For a moment he talked about how this isn’t what you really expect from Mexican food, but then he dove in and cooked with the chefs of Baja, lamb with smoky salsas, chard and kale in a taco with queso fresco, more lamb with lemon thyme. The chefs were all committed to the products of their region, including the local wine. I could feel from them (much more than a lot of fine-dining chefs) that the food they made was part of their identity. They embodied my sentence: We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

I think that Rick Bayless felt that he had to address the question of these Mediterranean products and their place in Mexican cooking. He did it only briefly, I imagine, because he did not want to belabor the point that it’s not what we, as non-Mexicans, expect cooking from Mexico to be, based as it is on olive oil and wine and thyme and lamb. Those are products we identify more with southern Europe, but the people in Baja have probably had access to them just as long as the Italians have had access to tomatoes.

This morning, Jacob was working with ingredients that were right in front of him, just like those fine-dining chefs in Baja on Rick Bayless’s TV show.

I was talking to a colleague earlier this week and she asked me what I was cooking for Rosh Hashana. I hadn’t given it much thought back on Tuesday. “I’m more thinking about the music,” I told her. She said that for her family, it’s all about the food. Her parents are from Mexico and their parents were from Poland and Hungary. They eat gefilte fish with a sauce from Verracruz, tamales made with chicken fat instead of lard, tortilla chips with gribenes. “We are the people who live in this place,” the recipes seem to say, “and this is the food we eat right now.”

I didn’t really get around to thinking about making Rosh Hashana dinner until, I guess, Wednesday. Split pea soup, I figured, and didn’t get any further.

I didn’t even know that there was a big holiday meal on Rosh Hashana until I was in my 20s and I got invited to someone else’s. There is, it turns out, a huge tradition of big holiday meals on the night of erev Rosh Hashana. We never had them growing up. I guess it was because my mother was singing in the choir so she didn’t feel like making a big meal. We didn’t have an extended family around us to go to, so my dad and my brother and I ate a big snack and my mom got an early ride from a friend. We went to synagogue and I sat next to my dad and held his hand sometimes. His hand is square, like the shoulders of his suit jacket. That is what I remember about the High Holy Days, not a meal.

So when I am planning my own Rosh Hashana dinner I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what we should or shouldn’t eat except, of course, for the round challah. Come to think of it, I started making round braided challa for that first Rosh Hashana dinner I was invited to in my 20s.

I went to the grocery store on Thursday morning with not much of a plan. When I got there, I saw end-of-season Roma tomatoes on sale; they reminded me of a big beautiful picture of roasted tomatoes in my new cookbook, so they went on the menu. Clean new crop apples, of course, to dip in honey and then more to bake because Ruth asked for apple sauce. She loves pomegranates, also newly in season, and when I was putting together the apples and honey plate I pulled in the Asian pears from Roberto’s tree across the street. Every single piece of produce in that meal was grown in California. We are the people who live in this place, my Rosh Hashana dinner said, and this is what we eat right now.

The first family dinner of 5772

The first family dinner of 5772

Even when I am cooking Indian food, I am thinking as much about the Indian grocery where I get my spices as I am about India. I’ve never been to India but I go to Vik’s all the time. I don’t think I would cook nearly as much Indian food if I didn’t have Vik’s so close. I can go over there on my bike after work on the spur of the moment. I get to live in a neighborhood next to another neighborhood where a lot of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent set up their stores. It’s the same as my young colleague’s mother with her gefilte fish and chicken fat tamales. And speaking of tamales, I am quite sure I would never have tried nixtamalization if I didn’t have Mi Terra right here, selling dried untreated field corn less than a mile from my house. I am just cooking what is available to me on my bicycle.

We are the people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

One Response to “The food we eat right now”

  1. alex400 Says:

    Sara,
    Loved the post and the reflection on how time + place + food can equal something like identity. Though, I think the appreciation of the specialness of our concoctions sometimes comes only with a bit of distance. My grandmother still doesn’t think matzoh tacos are anything worth writing home about. Maybe, when your kids are grown, they’ll reflect back on the food they were raised on, and see just how important, and special, their meals were to the fullness of their personalities.
    Shana tova!


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