Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Do Doro Wat, Pannekoeken, Marsala, and Baklava Have in Common?

When I was growing up, cooking and baking were a way for me to escape the problems of the day and ultimately find a new vantage point.  I remember lonely Friday nights during middle school where I would get lost in baking cookies.  During the measuring and mixing, I would stop obsessing about my status at school or the day’s slights.  When the cookies were cooling, my perspective would have altered just enough so my world seemed a little brighter and my problems almost manageable.  Thinking back, I realize the act of food preparation helped me break negative circuits in my head as I allowed myself to enjoy the creativity and the creation inherent in the act.

Growing up, my sisters and I learned Dutch before English.  We attended school and church with people of similar origin.  We celebrated traditions from the land well known for its windmills.  We also traveled back to the Netherlands every five years or so to visit extended family.  My immigrant parents and I often found a gulf separated us from fully understanding each other.

Food became part of a bridge we built in my adult years.  I vividly recall making pofferjes at my Oom (uncle) Piet’s house as a child.  The small, puffy, round pancakes dusted with powdered sugar melted in my mouth in just one bite.  Now making them with my kids takes me back to those times.  On New Year’s Eve, my dad made oliebollen—fried dough with raisins and chunks of apples dipped in powdered sugar and eaten hot.  When I learned to make them, I felt a new connection form.  I share this experience with him although we prepare the dish at different times and miles apart.  My parents and I still have much we don’t understand about each other.  But when they see my kids scream for pannekoeken (thin Dutch pancakes) and witness me preparing them as they did for me and my sisters, I can show them their culture has become a part of ours too.

Offering an opinion while enjoying pannekoeken with friends in Holland

My first date with my Greek-born husband was at a restaurant called Greek Islands in Chicago.  It was my introduction to the taste of his food and coffee, which I found out the hard way had grounds in the bottom.  My initial visit to his homeland was ironically without him.  My mother-in-law cooked “eggplant shoes,” wonderfully unlike anything I had ever tasted before.  She was a food-is-love person and was always in the kitchen fixing something.  When I mastered the art of baklava and my husband complimented me by saying, “Wow, this is as good as my mother’s.  Just don’t tell her!” I felt a little Greek too.  And I paid homage to his mother, even though our lives have taken divergent paths.  She taught me to make a few of my favorite Hellenic foods before she passed away too soon.  She didn’t use recipes.  So my son Damian and I stayed in the kitchen for hours documenting every step.  I don’t think I felt closer to her than when she shared this gift—with minimal words spoken but much laughter and tasting.  Language was a challenging barrier for us but communication through food broke through it.  And she created a special bond with her grandchildren this way too.

Loving on Yaya at a Greek Restaurant

When we went to Addis Ababa to meet our daughter, we sampled Ethiopian cuisine for the first time.  Bringing a child into our family from another part of the world gave us the responsibility to connect her to her culture.  For me, learning to cook her food and seeing her natural affinity for it (quite unlike her brothers who are finding it an acquired taste), made me feel a little bit like an East African mama.  Preparing these dishes and stocking my shelves with spices I just discovered felt like an investment in her roots.  As the smells of lentils cooking with berbere or duro wat waft through the house, I imagine these are the same aromas as those in the kitchen of her first mother.  And I feel the expanse of half the globe disappear.

Celebrating a special birthday at a local Ethiopian Restaurant topped off with Baklava

When I traveled to India to celebrate two friends’ union, I witnessed that no other culture quite does weddings like Indians with a week long affair of parties and festivities.  I enjoyed marsala tea for the first time and many vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties.  I continue to drink that spicy tea with milk and am transported to the beauty and chaos that was my Indian experience. I also learned to make some of my favorite dishes as a way to honor the amazing heritage my friends and their families opened up to me.

Food is a wonderful, accessible expression of culture and a way to connect.  There are no rules, boundaries or judgments.  I can mix, match and modify while learning and enjoying.  And you can share it too. I like creating cookbooks so my children can join me on this journey and add their own twists. Specifically, I found the preparation and the creativity of opening my mind to new tastes, flavors and combinations opens my internal dialogue to new paths and connects me with others whose cultures differ from mine.

One Friday night, I felt quite down after receiving disappointing work news.  I woke up Saturday still blue.  Without thinking, I headed to the kitchen.  I started cooking and baking.  My three kids joined in or passed through as the hours lapsed.  At the end of the day, the disappointment was less bitter and the possibilities more exciting.  I was transported back to those middle school baking sessions that had the same effect.  I realized my culinary exploits that led to this Zen feeling had broadened to include the cultures I embraced.  With no specific intention, my Saturday offerings included Greek zucchini, Ethiopian lentils, Indian curry cauliflower, as well as a few variations of cookies.  Maybe the connection to the individuals and cultures they represent was part of the genesis for the peaceful feeling I gained…at least I would like to think so.

A version previously published on InCulture Parent.

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