A straight line from Chef Boyardee to sumac

March 13, 2013

When my mother’s brother and sister get together on holidays, they talk about my grandmother’s cooking. They have a whole routine they go through about her pies (banana cream, grasshopper, apple). My uncle complains about something with a Japanese name that seems to mean leftovers with a hot dog. They talk about her lasagna. My mom talks about my grandmother’s lasagna, too.

They are remembering the 1950s and early 60s. Italian food was an adventure for the postwar American homemaker, and my grandmother was right on-trend with the other cooking mothers of her generation. Lasagna was the exotic-other cuisine. It would be decades before every other supermarket carried imported blocks of genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it’s in your local store now because my grandmother and millions of other mid-century home cooks were tantalized by the idea of making foreign food from Italy.

I remember my own mother in the 1970s, frying corn tortillas into hard taco shells. She used wooden chopsticks to shape them in the hot oil. I’m sure it was a big project for her to figure out. She made enchiladas, too, because she was looking for an exotic cooking challenge, and in the 70s in the suburbs, that was Mexican food. She was one of many other 70s suburban housewives priming their kids for 1992, the year that salsa sales overtook ketchup in the U.S.

So I feel like I’m carrying on a family tradition. When I have a hard day at work, I need a little retail therapy in the ethnic markets in the neighborhood. A few weeks ago, I ended up with dried lime, sumac, pomegranate molasses and guava paste. It’s me and my mom and my grandmother, just like all of those other American home cooks, going for a new challenge or just looking for a change on the dinner table. We find something that is exotic but becoming more accessible, and in a decade or two it seems simply American to serve enchiladas or lasagna.

Lasagna was never exotic to Ellen’s Italian-American grandmother, who learned to make it from her Italian mother and served it for Sunday dinners her whole life. My grandmother’s food traditions – sushi, miso, tofu – which she also served to her family regularly, were integrated into mainstream American cooking and eating as well, though not exactly as she cooked them. The boundaries between what is familiar and what is exotic depends a lot on your culture of origin, but it’s safe to say that ethnic foods gain broad practice in American home kitchens in waves. For Italian food it was in the 1950s and for Mexican it was in the 1970s. It’s a pot that is always getting deeper.

It’s also rarely authentic. I don’t think Ellen’s grandmother would have thought much of my grandmother’s lasagna, even though my aunt and uncle remember it fondly. Hard shell tacos are not particularly Mexican, either. I don’t really want to know what an actual Persian cook would think of what I did with those dried limes. In part, it’s because I don’t care. I care about my Shabbat dinner guests, who loved what I did with the lime and the sumac and the guava paste. I care about the food traditions of my culture of origin, by which I mean the lasagna and the enchiladas as well as the miso and the tofu.

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