(by Pei Ja Anderson)
When I think of the meals my mother and I have shared, I am not hit with a wave of culinary nostalgia. There are no wafts of homemade sugar cookie frosting in the air or hearty scents of a pot roast baking in the oven over the holidays. Food has never been my mother’s love language.
As a child, I dreamt of having the kind of mother who dutifully baked and chopped and peeled, whose primary domain was the kitchen. It seemed to me that cooking and feeding were traits a woman naturally assumed without effort after having children. I fantasized about having a mother who embodied the all-American 1950s housewife trope. While I always understood that my dream was incredibly sexist, it didn’t propel me to think any other way; food was synonymous with compassion.
My mother’s philosophy of food was black-and-white: Things were either healthy or horrible. Though occasional treats were allowed, everything was bound in strict moderation. She stuck to small portions of light Mediterranean foods and has been a pescatarian all her life. Eating a set, defined group of foods seemed to me practical, yet rigid.
The first food banished from the pantry was Raisin Bran cereal—silently grouped into the “bad” category. Soon after came anything processed, anything that lived in the center aisles of grocery stores. Inside our refrigerator, you would find homemade kimchi from the farmer’s market, thick stalks of leeks, drawers full of washed blueberries and strawberries, Greek yogurt, and Mason jars filled with almonds. Our freezer stocked peas, liter-sized bags of shrimp, and whole-grain bread. I joked that I grew up in a one-jelly-bean-a-day kind of household. My crippling sweet tooth was never satisfied by raiding our pantries, and I wholly rejected my mother’s philosophy.
Getting my driver’s license at 16 allowed me to go to the grocery store on my own and fill my reusable bag with Rice Krispy treats, Gushers, Hot Cheetos, lemonade, and bagel bites. I stashed and stored like a feral squirrel in winter. Most often I would leave my stockpile in the trunk of my car, some in my closet and bedside table, with cellophane wrappers stuffed under my mattress, but this secret habit eventually revealed itself. Armies of ants swarmed the sticky residue that covered my bedroom floor, and I was forced to show my parents the shameful remnants of my hoard. Though they were mostly upset that I was hiding something from them, and that they would have to call the exterminator, I always felt that my mother in particular was disgusted seeing the trash pile of foods that were tacitly forbidden in our home.
At yet, idiosyncratic as we all are, I knew she empathized with my insatiable sweet tooth. So the one concession to her culinary dogma was driving to the local supermarket with me after dinner to buy dark chocolate toffee and dulce de leche ice cream. I recognize now that what she was instilling in me was not a binary rule of good and bad foods but a mindset of moderation, nurturing me through these limitations. But the toffee and ice cream never lasted more than a night in our kitchen, and I always craved more.
In a counterintuitive way, I attribute my mother’s strict diet to the way she grew up. My grandmother is a whiz in the kitchen—a Midwest-born Julia Child. Nothing gives her more joy than feeding a crowd. Her sand dollar pancakes are the best I’ve ever tasted, and her chicken tetrazzini is a spectacular frenzy of butter and cream. She raised six children and was responsible for the cooking and cleaning like most wives in the 1950s. For breakfast, she catered to each of her children’s requests—whether crisped bacon and cheesy scrambled eggs or toast and fresh-cut pineapple. After hearing these stories of my grandmother’s meals, filled with aromas foreign to my childhood, I was even more confused as to how my mother would grow to have the relationship with food that she has, replacing bounty and abundance with scarcity.
I understand better now, recognizing our similar journeys in developing a sense of one’s own through food. From our periods of teenage rebellion and burgeoning individualism came a graceful falling of the pendulum that stretched so far from home.
Perhaps my mother’s love language was food all along, just not in my limited version of it. She has shown me the world through food. Together we’ve dined at Nobu in Tokyo where she introduced me to the delicate splendor of miso-marinated cod melting on our tongues. We’ve shucked wriggling oysters out of their shells on the Adriatic Sea and filled our stomachs with platefuls of pilau and ugali in Tanzania. My favorite snack as a toddler used to be fresh octopus balls from the Roppongi fish markets in Japan where my family lived for several years. It seems food was always part of our story.
My mother left her 35-years-long career as an accomplished businesswoman when she turned 60, and that first summer of her retirement ushered in a harvest of cherry tomatoes from the garden that my dad planted—a variety called Super Sweets that my mom loves best. My older sister and I picked and plucked, careful to select only those that popped right off the vine, slipping easily into our palms with a slight pull. We collected hundreds in a basket and carried them up the stairs to my mother, who stood in the kitchen over a pot of boiling water for angel hair pasta. I halved the tomatoes on a cutting board, careful not to slice my fingers in the process. Through our kitchen windows, an amber sun bathed the room with light.
My mother always cleans as she works—a trait I admire and try to practice now. Meanwhile, I put away the clean silverware from the dishwasher, which is her least favorite chore. The cooked noodles were sprinkled with bread crumbs, and dinner was served—with love, since no good meal was ever made without it.
Pei Ja Anderson is a Chinese-American writer from Marin County, California. Consequences of Flight, her poetry collection published by New Degree Press in 2020, examines the intersections of girlhood, Asian-American identity, and grief. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and can be found at www.peijaanderson.com/.
Susan’s Sweet 100s
1/2 sourdough loaf or 5 oz. croutons
1 lb. fresh or dried capellini pasta
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
5 T. freshly minced garlic
6 pts. cherry tomatoes
1/4 c. panko bread crumbs
4 sprigs basil
6 T. grated asiago or Parmesan cheese
If using the sourdough loaf, preheat oven to 400 F.
Place loaf on a sheet pan, and bake for 30 minutes to dry out.
Cut into bite-sized cubes and set aside.
(Skip this step if using ready-made croutons.)
Bring 5 quarts of salted water to boil.
Cook fresh pasta 3 - 4 minutes, or dried pasta according to package directions, until al dente. Strain and set aside.
In a large frying pan over low-medium heat, add extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. and sauté for 1 minute.
Add tomatoes, and stir to warm.
Add pasta to tomato mixture.
Serve in a large bowl, topped with bread crumbs, basil, grated cheese, and croutons.