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.