It’s Fall!!!!!! When we look back on our favorite food memories, they likely start here. Pies, tamales, challah. They reign supreme in our taste buds beginning in October. Growing up, my mom cooked all the time. It was her way of being a present mom for us while working full time. During the week, we had a home cooked meal. Pot pies, casseroles, fried chicken, etc. The change in temperature has my taste buds getting retrospective.
When my mom came to visit in August, we had a wonderful time. We went to the beach, played with the boys, and got some good mom and daughter talks in. There is a moment, however, that is still sticking out to me. My momma, with all her southern well meaning, opened my refrigerator and said, “Store bought cookie dough? Tsk. You know how to make it.”
She’s right. I do. That doesn’t mean that in the moment I didn’t argue with her inside my head trying to justify my purchase. “BUT I JUST DON’T HAVE TIME” being the largest argument against taking the time to make her recipe of mini M&M cookies for my son. Then, last week I started putting together recipes for apple pie to feature on my instagram. (Because it’s fall.) I texted my mom and asked if she had an apple pie filling recipe. She texted back, “No, I just use the canned stuff.”
It got me thinking about food traditions and my cohort of friends. We’re all around 30, educated, and many of us between first and third generation American. Yet how many of us can cook? Second, how many of us can actually cook the meals our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents made? Third, why can’t we as a collective of self righteous foodie door dash dining millennials make a decent personally culturally relevant meal? We love food. We created a culture that photographs their meals before eating and thrive on easy access to different cuisines, so why aren’t we cooking?
Personally, I know most of my family’s food traditions come from a place of poverty. Not in a negative way, but both of my baby boomer parents will tell you quite boldly that they were raised by products of the depression. Quality ingredients were substituted for cheaper versions, meals were pared down, convenience began to override flavor. This is where the disconnect begins between our traditions and us, our parents’ influence on our food identity. Hence, my dad using store bought pie crust for his apple pie rather than teaching me how to make it, which he was taught to do by his mother.
I learned to cook for the most part in San Antonio, Texas. First thought may lead you to think of the city as its stereotypes. White and Hispanic. Rodeos and the Alamo. Lots of tacos and enchiladas. My perspective is different because I lived there, but what many people forget is that San Antonio was, at least in the early 2000’s during my adolescence, home to a handful of operating Air Force bases. Many of my friends brought different cultures and foods and perspectives because they were military brats. Rene’s parents were from Trinidad & Tobago and Panama. Elisa, Naomi, and Stephanie are Mexican-American, but Stephanie’s parents had been stationed in Japan when she was young. Jamie is third generation Italian-American. Eating dinner at their homes and having their parents fuel us during all of our late night school projects, I was exposed to so many more flavors than just my mom’s southern repertoire. I asked those close friends, who I thankfully still have a strong friendship with, about their experiences with food traditions and why or why not they still have a relationship with them to try and figure out the disconnect between our culture and our ability to cook within it.
When I first moved to San Antonio in 2002, one first the first friends I connected with was Rene, who lived in my neighborhood and shared my loved of ska music and general nerdiness. When arriving to Rene’s house you removed your shoes, you said hello to BOTH parents, and usually we were asked by Rene’s mom if we did our homework. On a very rare occasion I was asked if I would like to stay for dinner. It was spiced chicken, rice, and fried plantains. I remember it being SO delicious. Thinking back to our youth, I asked Rene if he could cook like his mom. Rene very honestly told me he did like a lot of immigrant kids and wanted to assimilate, so those home cooked, traditional meals weren’t valued back then.
While teaching in East Houston, I attended many trainings for ESL (English as a Second Language). I was taught that the first thing immigrants lose is their clothing, then their language, and last their food. It is a strange lens to see my close friends as sharing the same experience as my former students, but over and over again I hear that parents are the ones encouraging assimilation and not sharing food tradition, especially if they weren’t Hispanic or female. My male, Asian students from Houston were rarely even allowed in the kitchen. I have no idea how they’re feeding themselves now that they’re in college.
Our friend Jamie echoed the sentiment about her first generation Italian- American dad. While she would have loved to learn everything her grandparents had made, Jamie’s grandparents passed away when she was very young and her father wasn’t encouraged to learn to cook. Culinary identity, especially in Southern European culture, is feminine. Jamie admittedly “grasped at straws” for Italian cultural identity because of the loss of the family’s beloved pasta recipes. What’s left for the Feola’s today? One marinara and meatball recipe, and folklore of gnocchi.
Now, not everyone has their parents to thank for their loss of food culture. We now live in a much more health and nutrition conscious environment. I seriously doubt any immigrant grandmas counted a calorie or would dare limit themselves to a something as restrictive as the keto diet. Nowadays, an awareness of the connection of thyroid and diet, fertility and diet, anxiety/depression and diet have forced many of us to save beloved family recipes for special occasions. Considering the average family size has dropped from 3.7 people to 3.1 since 1970 and younger generations are waiting longer and longer to marry, even a perfectly mastered family recipe designed to feed a family of eight only finds itself applicable on a few occasions annually.
Unfortunately as millennials, we’re more isolated, career focused, and perhaps more convenience minded than even our parents. Our baby boomer parental units may have served us Kid Kuisine and invented instant cookie dough, but they certainly didn’t have Amazon PrimeNow or Uber Eats. Can we take former traditions, and adapt them for our own purposes?
I chose to make my own filling because I don’t trust the ingredients in the can of apples at my local supermarket. Plus, everyone knows that food made with less processing has more flavor. The closer you are to the source of your food, the better it is. Neither of my parents had an off hand recipe for the filling, I used memory and good old Pinterest to add the spices needed for my all American dessert.
Personally, I don’t have a direct connection to my family’s culture outside of the United States and neither does my husband. My family was raised on southern frying, baking, and casseroles. I know I don’t want to pass on everything I learned because of my own focus on health avoiding preservatives and additives. What our family wants to pass on is a love of food and a love of being in the kitchen. From there what we all need to ask is: What can we positively pass on to the next generation without losing what was sacred? The answer to me is not an erasure of the past, but a rewriting, like a cover song of a classic rerecorded with a modern tone.
My pie turned out to be a nod to my mom’s crust, without the crisco. The filling full of the same spices my parents added, without the corn syrup. I’m hoping we can undo the easy outs of the baby boomer generation and focus on creating a more positive relationship with the roots of our food. Perhaps we will learn to cook through Pinterest and other tools of the internet and find our own food identity in the recipes of others. Let us remix the flavors of the past by meal planning our way through carne asada, curried chicken, and kugel.