Saturday, May 5, 2012

Who Taught Me to Cook? Part II

Sorry for the lack of actual food postings for a few days--it's been final exam week and I haven't done anything particularly interesting since Tuesday. Bread making tomorrow, I hope!

So, let's continue with the story of how I learned to cook. Probably the most pivotal moment in my childhood occurred when my parents decided to move from Detroit, where I was born, to Ann Arbor. It was only about 30 miles away but the environment was very different. In Detroit, I had lived in a working class/lower middle class neighborhood. I was born in 1966, and Detroit had seen race riots and all sorts of economic tensions. In 1973 my parents decided to find a better environment and moved to Ann Arbor. My father already had a brother and his family living in Ann Arbor, where his brother and sister-in-law were in school. The Detroit branch of the extended family were a little dubious about the move, as the University of Michigan certainly had a reputation at that time as being a place where people were rather wild and into drug culture. As a matter of fact, in the first year after we moved there, my mom was walking my sister and I across part of the central campus where there were a lot of students smoking hand-rolled cigarettes than smelled funny. My mom, who had most emphatically NEVER been into drug culture, I think took a couple of minutes to figure out what was going on, then increased her pace considerably to get us off the campus! It seems we had stumbled onto the annual April 1st Hash Bash. Live and learn.

We moved into a house near U of M married student housing. What this meant for me is that I attended public school with kids from all over the world, as the University of Michigan had a large and diverse international student population. I met many east Asian kids, but also children from Central and South America, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and just about any other place you can think of. I found this very cool, and loved getting to know about different people and how they lived. I remember going to a Venezuelan friend's house and seeing a poster of some Chinese guy named Mao and asking about it. It was my first lesson in the international Communist movement and its permutations in South America. I made friends with a girl from Iran who disappeared, never to be heard from again, after the Islamic Revolution. Another friend from Libya left abruptly when his dad was accused of being a spy.

Making friends with foreign kids sometimes meant being invited to eat over at their houses. I went from a very conventional and limited diet to tasting stuff which was, to me, exotic. I think my first exposure to Chinese food was when I was offered a steamed bun with meat inside--what I now know to be bao. I was told it was a Chinese hamburger, so I happily munched away. Since so many of my friends were Chinese or otherwise east Asian, I learned to use chopsticks by the time I was eight. It was either that or starve to death when playing at a friend's house! The chopsticks at Chinese houses were ok, especially if they were bamboo. Plastic chopsticks were a little tougher because they were so slippery. The hardest ones, however, were the flat silver chopsticks at Korean houses.

I learned about homemade tortillas, curries, many permutations on dumplings from around the world (generally my favorites), beans and rice, lumpia, egg rolls, sweet candy wrapped in rice paper, and couscous. I gradually learned to be more adventurous in my eating. My biggest challenge was vegetables. Vegetables, when they were served at my house, were often canned and of limited variety. I liked a lot of the seasonings on foreign food, liked the starches and most meats, liked the sweets, and was willing to try the fruit (what the heck was a lychee? I didn't know, but it tasted good), but I had a tough time with the vegetables. I'm sure that the parents who were feeding me exercised a lot of patience as I picked around vegetable for something I recognized.

All of these experiences taught me to be more open-minded about food (as well as religion, dress, table manners, political views, and just about everything else). They didn't necessarily teach me how to cook, however. I'm saving that for the next installment.


  1. my mom has both the flat metal and hollow, circular metal chopsticks. I've always been a fan of the regular wooden chopsticks :)

  2. I love Korean food, but those metal chopsticks are slippery!