Of Race and Relationships: Bread Isn’t Just For Sandwiches

2011 October 16 § 3 Comments

In an effort to save money, my SO and I were thinking about what foods we could get that would be versatile options during the food-making processes of cooking breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. One particular exchange during our meandering journey through Safeway really brought home to me an important aspect of growing up in any culture: food.

“Celery?” He suggested. “We can put it in soup or eat it as a snack.”

I shook my head, wondering if I should suggest garlic even though I knew we wouldn’t be able to use it all. “I don’t like celery. How about broccoli?”

We passed by the green onions (which went in almost every dish my mom cooked) and selected some fruit in the produce section, then selected his favorite cereal (Raisin Nut Bran) and my favorite cereal (Honey Bunches of Oats, but only the Honey Roasted variety) before heading for the refrigerated dairy section in the back.

“We can get bread,” he commented as we walked past shelves of bread in all its wheat, white, honey oat, potato, rye, and sourdough glory, all packaged in neat loaves along the aisle.

“Why?” A lot of surprise; a little distaste. Nothing against bread; I just didn’t much like sandwiches.

He sounded confused. “Well, it’s something we can eat for every meal. Toast, and sandwiches, and dinner-“

“But I don’t like sandwiches…” My experience working in the dining hall at my university had raised my standard for sandwiches – I wouldn’t be satisfied with just lettuce, a couple of slices of tomato, and one or two other vegetables. Plus, sandwiches were a pain to prepare… and who ate sandwiches for dinner, anyway?”

There was a pause, a moment of silence while we stopped in the aisle. And then he started laughing.

Dinner in my thoroughly Chinese household varied in the details, but had certain mainstays that were reliably constant:

1. Soup before and after dinner.
2. Rice was served more than nine times out of ten.
3. We almost always had at least one plate of vegetables, one plate with seafood or fish, and one plate of some other kind of meat.
4. Fruit for a late dessert.

For me, rice is comfort food, happy food, filling food, and the staple I always cooked when I needed a pick-me up or something that was familiar and reminded me of home. My mom always cooked porridge with chicken, ginger, and green onion when my brother or I were sick; it got so that whenever I was sick at school, that was the only thing I wanted or had much of an appetite for. This was something I’d taken for granted as “normal,” as something that I would cook when I was living on my own.

Even if my significant other had a Chinese or Chinese American background, I’m sure there would still be differences in the foods we would be used to eating (for example, even the foods that my younger cousins on my dad’s side eat are slightly different than what my family usually eats at home). Even allowing for small differences, though, my boyfriend’s food and my food are completely different in type, variety, and staples. His grocery store is Safeway, his parents’ first choice the produce market, and mine is Zion and Ranch 99. We become so used to the food we grow up with that seeing how other families eat can take some adjustment, especially when that other family is the boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) family, and their ethnic background is very different from our own.

I can only imagine the kind of culture shock I’m going to get when I experience a “real” Thanksgiving with his family, complete with the turkey and stuffing and who knows what else. (Back home, we never really acknowledged the Western holidays, aside from the fact that my parents didn’t have work on those days. If we “celebrated” Thanksgiving at all, it was with a gathering of family friends, grilling chicken or beef ribs in the backyard, and eating chow mei fun. The only turkey I ate growing up was the kind you bought sliced in plastic packaging in the deli section.)

Being in a long-distance relationship also means that it took me well over a year to really understand what it meant to date someone from a vastly different ethnic background than my own. Because we ate out more often during those rare visits to see each other, I didn’t realize just how different our day-to-day eating habits really were.

So what did I learn during my August visit?

My rice is his salad.

Hamburgers, steak, and hot dogs grilled in the backyard are high on the list for family gatherings.

There actually exists an invention called the “salad spinner.”

Rice eaten plain and white is basically nonexistent as a dish or even as a side.

There are more specific names for different pasta dishes, because they actually eat more than one kind of pasta.

And lastly, bread is not just something you eat in a sandwich.


More thoughts on my identity as an Asian-American can be found at An Asian-American Diary.


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§ 3 Responses to Of Race and Relationships: Bread Isn’t Just For Sandwiches

  • After four-and-a-half years in the UK, I’m still coming to terms with the cooking culture here (which means adapting some things, adapting TO others, and balking at still others). I’m still uncomfortable at the amount of meat people take for granted here. I still don’t care for gravy. I still mourn that I can’t cook a lot of my favourite Greeek vegetable dishes because there are no suitable vegetables to be found here. I still make lists of what I want my mum to cook when we fly over. You have a long way to go, still.

    • miss.eevee says:

      Even though I grew up in an American food culture where having meat every meal is normal (we don’t eat steaks every meal, but there’s always at least a small amount of meat mixed into each dish, except for the veggie-only dish), I am still uncomfortable at the amount of meat that is considered “standard” here – one need only look at a restaurant menu to see how dominantly meat features in American dinner options. I anticipate more conversations and discussions about food choice if we ever decide to cohabitate, since I maintain a primarily vegetarian (with occasional pescatarian-friendly choices) diet.

      Getting used to food differences was definitely not something I ever thought about when I thought about relationships. I can’t even imagine being in a situation like yours, where common foods from my ethnic background wouldn’t be available. While the differences in food culture provided interesting food for thought, I’m under no delusions that my situation (temporary in the extreme) was at all unfortunate – Ranch 99 was still a 20-minute drive away, after all, if I was ever craving home-cooked Chinese.

  • haha, I really enjoyed this piece (very well-written– haven’t swung by your blog in a while, yv!)… funny enough, I actually really embraced eating more american food in college, since I wasn’t allowed to eat anything but chinese food when I was growing up. I think for me, NOT eating chinese food was a way that I stood in my freedom and individuality. even today (because I’ve learned a lot about food– not just nutrition but food ethics) my eating is markedly different from my parents, and I don’t particularly enjoy chinese food. is it sad? well, my friend used to think it was, since she thinks without a food culture, I don’t have a “home.” but do I really need a solid, set-in-stone identifiable identity? I don’t identify as either asian or american, though people will undoubtedly refer to me as asian because of how I look. I eat different kinds of pasta, but I still want porridge when I’m sick. it’s interesting.

    partly I think it’s because I strayed away from animal products that my parents, who think that a meal without meat isn’t a meal, and I differ even more…

    I just don’t quite enjoy chinese food anymore.

    anyway, I enjoyed reading this :) it’s so interesting how relationships with another human being can open our world and help us explore the nuances of living as unique individuals.

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