To read Home Is Where My Story Begins - Part 2 - click here
Mom did the cooking in our household and she also packed me a lunch almost every day until I could drive. My typical lunch was an American cheese sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, a piece of fruit and a treat. I had lunch-boxes when I was quite young, but for most of my packed-lunch years, mom would line up the brown bags on the counter in the morning and start making sandwiches. I can still taste the cheese sandwich and it is a taste I love, although it remains only in my memory.
The lunch treats are what I remember most fondly. My favorites were Ho-Ho’s and Ding Dongs (which I recently discovered were called Ring Dings in the Northeast of the U.S.), which would never make it past the nutrition police of school lunches today, and in fact never made it into my own children’s lunches (although I did buy a box once or twice for nostalgia’s sake). Mom would keep them in the freezer to add to the assembly line of lunches, if she could keep the boys from eating them. I went with her to the grocery store sometimes and she taught me to quickly hide the treats in the back of the freezer behind the frozen vegetables when we got home so my brothers wouldn’t eat them all before the next lunch preparation. I remember many occasions when one of my two older brothers would see us unpacking the groceries and start searching for something to eat, wanting to get in there before all the “good stuff” was all gone. With seven people in a household, things like Oreos, Ice Cream Bars, Bear Claws and Ding Dongs rarely made it past the first day in the house.
I didn’t realize until I was much older how special it was that my mother made me a bag lunch every day. Sometimes she would write me a little note on my napkin or just put a smiley face on it. Those little notes, or opening the bag and seeing my shiny foil treat, always made my day better. I particularly liked it when the Ho-Ho or Ding Dong was still slightly frozen and the creamy center was a bit hard. I would slowly nibble all the chocolate off first and then eat the cake and cream, savoring the love of a treat from Mom. I would never have told her that at the time, but that is how I remember feeling.
Dinner was a regular family affair. My favorite dinner was boiled shrimp. We moved from 104 Sharon Court to 888 Asbury (an extremely lucky address in Chinese culture) and then 1640 Emory, just blocks away from the Race Street Fish Market which opened in 1947 and was still there the last time I looked. Mom and I would stop by after school and pick up a package of large shrimp, some boiling spices and some freshly-baked bread. Mom would dump the shrimp and spices in a pot of boiling water and quickly cook them. Then she would drain them into a big bowl in the center of the table and the seven of us would dive in with our hands, shell them and eat them with bread and margarine. Always margarine. I didn’t actually know that margarine wasn’t butter until I was a teenager and started baking. I had wondered why butter at some of my friend’s houses tasted so much better than my butter at home.
We also ate lots of bread and margarine with our spaghetti. Spaghetti was my little sister’s favorite and Mom would boil up a big pot of noodles, cover it in Ragu sauce from the jar and serve us each a plate full. We had a large container of dry “parmesan cheese” in a green shaker package and we covered our sauce with the cream-colored crumbles. I still love a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce; there is something very comforting about it’s simplicity, taking me back to the dinner table of my youth. I vaguely remember meatloaf and stuffed bell peppers and liver with onions, all dishes I didn’t care for much. Mom must have had a repertoire of many other meals that could feed a family of seven, but those I don’t remember, or I don’t care to remember.
I must have had an early liking for seafood because shrimp was my party-food favorite as well. When my parents had parties, which was not very often but often enough that I remember the shrimp, Mom would place an enormous chilled bowl on the dining room table filled full of pale pink sauce with small shrimp in it. There were toothpicks on the side to dip in and snag one of the saucy shrimp. I remember sneaking in before the guests arrived to eat as many of the delicious shrimp as possible, undoubtedly using the same toothpick for all. My memory tells me that it tasted like Thousand Island salad dressing on shrimp. I researched it and indeed, a popular party recipe of that era was thousand island sauce on shrimp. Mom agreed--she would have made that--but the party dish she remembers making more often was tiny meatballs that you dipped into a “concoction made with grape jelly and cocktail sauce” she told me. I obviously did not like the meatballs because I have erased those from my memory.
Most of the food I ate in my childhood did not require recipes and many ingredients came from a package or can or jar. Our cupboards contained boxes of scalloped potatoes and jello and canned mandarin oranges and green beans. I did not come home to wonderful smells in the kitchen or stand at my mother’s side learning to cook the favorite family meals. I don’t even remember most of the meals we ate and I certainly don’t remember ever talking about the food or the recipes. What I remember clearly is that dinner was at six o’clock every night and all seven of us were there. Where else would we eat?
As I got older and became interested in food preparation and ingredients and recipes, I lamented that I was not from a food-focused family. Friends that I met along the way taught me how to cook basic meals and bake desserts that they had learned from their mothers or grandmothers. I felt like I had really missed out on something since my parents didn’t instill in me a love for food and cooking. Maybe that is why I collected and treasured recipes over the years and had the confidence to forge my own versions...my family food heritage starts with me. I was not burdened with past generations of tradition.
Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can't even describe, aren't even aware of." -Ellen Goodman
To read Home Is Where My Story Begins - part 4 - click here