Food for Thought — Cooking, characters and cultural diversity
A guest post by Sherri L. Smith
Take a minute to answer this question: If you had one last meal, what would it be? This is one of my favorite dinner party questions. The answer can tell you a lot about someone. Sure, people will ramble, name a dozen items, some of them gourmet dishes from a favorite restaurant, some of them once in a lifetime treats from a vacation overseas, but in the end, if they are like most people, they will end up naming something from their childhood. Something their mother used to make. You can understand, of course, the desire for comfort food if it is indeed your last meal. But, I think it is more than that. It’s an assertion of self, of our origins.
My latest book, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, is founded on the two great loves of my life—my husband, and food. In the book, 14-year-old Ana Shen struggles to bring two sides of her family—African American and Chinese American—together to make the perfect meal to celebrate her eighth-grade graduation. Like Ana’s mother, I am black, like her father, my husband is Chinese. The idea of Ana was born from my own daydreams of our future children. As a biracial couple, we faced a few hurdles from other people, but we each knew who we were, who we wanted to be. How different would it be for our children, with a foot in each world? How would they assert who they were? These were uncomfortable questions. So, I looked for comfort, and found it in food.
Food is a mother language. Like Latin, it shares its roots with a hundred different cultures. The ingredients are the same—it’s how we express them that is different. Beans and rice is a very southern American dish, if the beans are red and the rice is long grain. Change the beans to black beans, season it with lime and garlic instead of onions and parsley, and it’s a Cuban dish. Fry those same beans twice, remove the lime and add tomato paste, and you have a Mexican dish. Use mung beans and you could have a Caribbean or Chinese meal. Grind the red beans into a paste, and ground the rice into flour for mochi, and you have the makings of a sweet Japanese or Chinese dessert.
This alchemy of food reduces the degrees of separation in a culture, and shows the migratory paths of our ancestors. Chinese workers who built the Pacific railroad tracks from California to Mexico settled in Mexico and changed the way a region cooks. African slaves brought through the Caribbean to the port of New Orleans for sale added their flavors of pepper and okra to the Spanish fish stews and French bouillabaisses to create gumbo and Creole cooking. If Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet was born out of a desire to glimpse the future of what a child of mine might be like, then food was a natural backdrop on which to let it play out. Ultimately, it’s not just the meal they prepare, but the legacy of the food itself that brings Ana and her family together. Each dish in the book tells us a little about the character who made it, who they are today, who they used to be. It is literally what her family brings to the table to share with Ana.
So, if you had one last meal, what would it be? Write down your answer, and then trace back to the beginning of that meal’s family tree. When did you first eat it? Who cooked it for you? Who taught them how to make it? Even if you think the story is short and simple, you will find that it isn’t, and that who “you” are is much bigger than you ever knew. And that is the lesson every child should learn.
Other stops on Sherri L. Smith’s blog tour:
February 11, 2008 @ Finding Wonderland
February 18, 2008 @ Bildungsroman
February 26, 2008 @ Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
February 28, 2008 @ The Brown Bookshelf
About Sherri: Sherri L. Smith was born in Chicago, Illinois and spent most of her childhood reading books. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she has worked in movies, animation, comic books and construction. Sherri’s first book, Lucy the Giant, was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults in 2003. Translated into Dutch as Lucy XXL (Gottmer, 2005), her novel was awarded an Honorable Mention at the 2005 De Gouden Zoen, or Golden Kiss, Awards for Children’s Literature in the Netherlands. Sherri’s second novel, Sparrow, was chosen as a National Council for the Social Studies/Children’s Book Council Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Hot Sour Salty Sweet (Random House, 2008) is her third novel. She is currently at work on Flygirl, an historical YA novel set during World War II.