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Moving beyond paper plate preferences

April 05, 2017

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Recently, we began planning a themed dinner with friends: “Foods of our Homelands.” I struggled mightily with identifying what those might be for me.


I am of Swedish and French descent, so I thought first of lingonberries, jelly candies and anything containing a lot of butter. But those aren’t foods I’ve eaten often, so I dismissed them. In the more recent past, I am from South Carolina, but I grew up vegetarian, so most traditional Southern foods weren’t staples in our household, either.


I’m sure that I struggled because I have forgotten a lot about being a child, but I also struggled because within our household, we stood divided by food. One year when my sister and I were still in elementary school, my mother stuck two paper plates to the fridge front with magnets, with my name on one plate, and my sister’s name on the other. On those plates, she told us, we were allowed to make a list of the foods we would not eat, with the understanding that whatever we did not list was fair game for her to cook.


Both of us have always loved a self-centered list, so we diligently began the task. We also took it very seriously, knowing that if we hadn’t written it down and it showed up at dinner, we were obligated to eat it. We were very compliant children.


But Mom’s plan soon backfired. After each meal, we would storm the refrigerator to add whatever terrible things we’d choked down that evening, thereby ensuring we would never have to do so again.


Eventually, the family could only agree upon veggie burgers and pizza, and even the pizza had to be made in quadrants to ensure that I did not have to eat onions, my sister did not have to eat mushrooms, and my father did not have to eat anything green. My poor mother would eat just about anything.


My food preferences were also the most extreme, so far as our nuclear family went. Although there was no meat in our home, my parents loved to tell the story of the time I got away from them at a wedding, still in diapers, and was later located beneath a buffet table, munching on two messy fistfuls of ham. So I guess it’s really no wonder I am experiencing a “Foods of our Homelands” identity crisis.


My friends traded ideas easily via text message, announcing their planned contributions, and I began to look for holes to fill, rather than to try to identify traditional family dishes. My partner, of strong Italian roots, made manicotti, and served an antipasto course complete with roasted red peppers, homemade bread, fresh fruit and cheeses. One friend planned for greens and biscuits, so those Southern delicacies were spoken for. Another friend had a fantastic strawberry meringue cake in the works.


Unfortunately, my problem was further compounded by familial estrangement. When I did finally decide upon dishes that made sense, I hit a wall. I didn’t have the recipes, and I couldn’t ask for them.


My sister and I are still close, though, and with her help, I made scalloped potatoes, which are the perfect confluence of Irish and Southern gluttony anyway. She reminded me, too, that in order to be authentic, I needed to leave one corner onion-free, in tribute to my ornery childhood self.


I also made fudge, which my great-grandmother made for our visits to her farmhouse in Camak. Neither my sister nor I have that recipe, though, so I had to learn a new one: that of my partner’s grandmother, Anna, who is 93, and who sends me a $20 bill at Christmastime.


Before my partner offered that recipe, I looked at a dozen of them online, scrolling listlessly and missing my family, and my old home. Making someone else’s fudge recipe did not erase that missing, but it soothed me to consider the ways in which we adjust to loss, and the bonds I’ve made beyond bloodlines, and will continue to make.


And anyway, it’s not as though I don’t still observe some of my family’s culinary traditions. In this house, we, too, eat veggie burgers and make pizza. Half with onions. Half without. 


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