So, like most people in America, I’m making a resolution or two for the new year. 2015. Sheesh. Let that one sink in for a moment. I still feel like that dizzy kid dancing wildly to Prince singing about 1999. . . and feeling like that year was SO far away it would never come.
Anyway, one of my big resolutions this year is to be creative and open-minded about food. Sure, I plan to diet and exercise and all that crap, but my biggest resolution about food is to try new ones at least twice a month. I make this plan at least once or twice a year, but I never seem able to keep it going as a regular part of our routine. I’d like to change that.
Trying new foods and incorporating them into our diet has been a big part of our life, though. The “foodway” that I inherited from my family was a not-very-complicated one, with poverty and scarcity making the decisions more than taste or nutrition. “White trash” was a regular part of our meals– if you don’t know what that is, it’s ground beef, browned, and then add in a can of cream of mushroom soup, water, and some noodles or rice. Cook until the starch is done. Or serve it over biscuits, like a sort of gravy. It’s easy, fast, fills you up, and . . . well, sometimes it tastes good. Mostly it’s just bland and filling.
I realized that I hadn’t cooked it in quite a while when my teenaged son ran into problems while trying to cook our dinner on Saturday. He had browned some ground beef but was hating the idea of making it into chili-mac (one of our winter staples.) I was tired and not willing to eat spaghetti again (the Viking son would eat spaghetti or fettuccine every day if he could) so I just made a quick pot of “white trash” with rice. Ehhh. I tried to fancy it up a little with fresh celery, onion, and mushrooms, but it still mostly resembled school paste in texture and flavor. (Speaking of, my goodness, how I miss school paste. I used to eat that, like every other child in my era. Weirdly appealing. A little smear of paste on a scrap of paper was how our teachers doled it out. Supposedly for gluing things but we knew better.)
My mom was a pretty good cook, given her limitations. She tried to cook new things, she loved watching cooking shows, especially the Cajun Chef, Justin Wilson, and she was willing to learn from her friends and relations. But still, we only had a limited repertoire that we ate. My Great Aunt Casey taught her how to cook a few things, things I still cook for my family now. But a typical night was hamburgers fried till they resembled charcoal and Kraft mac’n’cheese, with either frozen mixed veggies or corn on the side. It wasn’t very daring or very flavorful, but it was easy and cheap.
I’ve branched out a bit, trying things that I was afraid my family would hate. We’ve incorporated lots of Mexican dishes, some curries and Asian dishes, and lots of Mediterranean influenced foods. My family is one of those mongrel American families– you know the type, I’m sure. We’re Irish on St. Patrick’s Day but that’s just picking one ancestor out of a list of 16 and running with their ethnicity alone. We don’t have any ethnic foods that have survived all the stresses and travails of our families histories. There’s no traditional cookie we always make, no way of making cabbage edible that we learned from Grandma, no odd ethnic flavors sneaking into the spice rack. My mom didn’t even really own any spices beyond salt, pepper, and some pumpkin pie and apple pie mixes. Okay, maybe garlic salt and chili powder. But that’s about it.
So we’re basically inventing our own foodways in our new family. Since we live in Texas (and have for about 90% of our married life), we have added in lots of typical Texan foods. Fajitas and barbecue brisket are the two biggies, but we make a Tex-Mex version of other things, too, like Mexican rice and quesadillas. I grew up eating a totally different style of Mexican food (I still miss the huge huge tortillas that they use out west) but I don’t really cook that way these days. I miss it, though. The Arizonan style of Mexican cooking is a lot juicier, for one thing. They’re not afraid to leave a puddle of drippings beneath their tacos.
There are several things I want to learn how to cook this year: a real Cubano sandwich, a better Thai soup, Greek meatballs, Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons, more types of soups, maybe even seafood. I want to keep trying to perfect my cooking– I’m a little sloppy at times and very lazy, so I don’t bake nearly as often as I would like and my kitchen is never clean enough to really motivate someone to cook something complicated. If I can keep things cleaner (and buy a mixer, maybe), I might find it easier to cook in general.
Whatever your foodway is, whatever style you inherited, that should be honored, sure. But if your foodway is letting you down, don’t be scared to create your own. Your great grandchildren will one day be cooking up a complicated curry and someone will ask “How do you know how to do this?” And they won’t know that it was from you, they’ll just know that “my family always makes it.”