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.

The Daddy One

July 14, 2009

Ruth is way more into the concept of “daddy” than Jacob was. Or at least I thought she was because she said, “daddy” all the time and he never mentioned it. However, she never says “daddy” in relationship to herself. Occasionally she’s identifying a specific individual, as in, “Robin’s daddy,” but more frequently she’s using it to denote the size of objects, as in she sees a medium sized glass next to a large one and she calls the medium one “the mommy one” and the large one “the daddy one.”

I’ve asked her a couple of times if she wants a daddy and she always says no. Lately I’ve realized that she’s not talking about “daddy” all the time because she wants a father or even because she is thinking about fathers specifically. She’s a girl, so she wants to group objects by relationship. Calling the glasses “the daddy one” and “the mommy one” just indicates that she wants to put a label on their relationship to each other. Jacob would have been content with calling them “large” and “medium.”

May I have another?

May 16, 2009

At lunch after the service I was sitting with the cantor and Ruth.

“I’m thirsty!” Ruth said.

“If you have a problem, think of the solution. If you need help carrying out the solution, then ask for specific help,” I told her.

I say that to her all the time, once or twice or three times a week. I don’t want her to fall into a pattern where she plays cute-damsel-in-distress to get what she wants. I want her to ask for things directly, and only when she truly needs the assistance. It would be so easy for Ruth to go through life like that, getting things because she is cute and needs rescuing.

“Could you get me something to drink?” Ruth asked.

“Sure,” I replied and I poured her some strawberry lemonade out of the big carton that was too heavy to lift.

“That was very impressive,” the cantor said. She has boys. I could tell that my interaction with Ruth was something novel to her. She’d never thought about how you want to teach girls how to be in the world differently from boys – that their speech patterns are different and the way they get what they want is different.

To the tenth generation

November 18, 2008

It’s coming down that the strife that followed my grandfather’s death has blasted into the holidays. There are going to be nine of us at Thanksgiving instead of 19, Christmas is much reduced and New Year’s will be a shadow of its former self.

“Can you please explain why this is happening?” Ellen said months ago. I tried to start explaining about what happened when my uncle was born, the first boy after three girls and my grandfather –

and then I realized that would not make sense unless I explained that when my grandfather was a boy his parents sent him away to live with another family and –

and pretty soon I came to the conclusion that my life right now, my life as the lesbian dad who makes roasted tomatillo salsa on a Sunday afternoon – my life is being shaped by the strict primogeniture of 19th century Japan that made my second-son grandfather live with another family and want a son more than daughters.

So when people talk about African-Americans and slavery and they say that it’s been more than a hundred years since slavery was abolished so there’s no reason to talk about reparations – they are wrong. It’s still fresh, still relevant, still worthy of discussion at the very least. When The Torah talks about cursing to the third and the fourth generation, it’s pretty small potatoes.

I am thinking, all the time, about men and women and how we haven’t sorted things out. The wives get mad because the husbands say they are “babysitting” and “helping around the house.” The wives say that it’s not babysitting, it’s parenting and if you call it babysitting it makes it seem that it’s all the wives’ responsibility and what the husbands do is extra. But when the husbands try to make dinner for the kids – and it’s not exactly the way the wife would do it – she gets mad and tells him he doesn’t really know how to take care of the kids. He tries to assert himself and she pulls the rug out from under his feet.

I see it with Ellen’s straight friends all the time. I see it in my own marriage. I have to struggle every day not to tell Ellen that she’s doing it wrong when it really isn’t wrong, it’s just different. Then she turns around and tells me that I don’t really know how to relate to Ruth and I have to do it her way.

I want this to be all worked out. I don’t want to send Jacob and Ruth out into a world where nearly every couple I know can’t agree whose job it really is to take care of the children. I want men and women to get this thing worked out, this disequilibrium touched off by the Victorians sticking their angels in the house and the feminists pushing back out of the house. Now I know: it’s just too soon. These things – primogeniture, slavery, gender roles – their influence is longer than any one person can truly understand. Their influence pushes through generations and generations and generations longer than one lifetime. This isn’t going to be all worked out, none of it, not in my lifetime and not in theirs.