Eat, Drink, and Be Pleasantly Full: Time, Social Class, and Cooking

Every summer since that first panicked late May following my first year in grad school lo these many years, I scramble to cobble together any kind of piecemeal work that might sustain me financially for those 2-3 months when I don’t get a paycheck. For the remaining weeks, I have grandiose goals for the many things I will accomplish: plan and create lessons and syllabi for all the classes I’m teaching in the fall, read five books a week, do an hour of yoga every day, go for long contemplative walks, research, and write write write write write write. Did I mention my plans to write?

And while I’m never not productive (the pat response from most writer/scholars to the question, how was your summer – “Not as productive as I’d planned”), the first few “free” weeks tend to go by in a blur of slow mornings, too much time on social medias, reorganizing drawers, files, bookcases and/or rooms, talking on the phone with people I’ve neglected, and a lot of Netflix and Hulu. This year we even have HBO GO. Last night while my partner slept, I watched Pitch Perfect 2. Don’t ask me why . . .

This summer, while I’m definitely falling into my normal blur, instead of unfocused interwebs surfing and taking two hours to clean out one junk drawer (if you don’t inspect every last item, how do you know what you’re trashing!), I’ve been cooking and baking. My long mornings online have been looking up recipes for easy almond poppy seed muffins and vegetarian breakfast hash. Having recently acquired a love of kale and a small stockpile of soyrizo, I’ll spend an hour or so going through old cookbooks looking at recipes that can be altered. For almost a year I’ve followed the Facebook page for the cookbook Decolonize Your Diet: Plant-Based Mexican-American Recipes for Health and Healing, and I finally bought the cookbook and began using it to shape our grocery lists.

In the past three weeks outside of our regular rotation of meals, I’ve roasted raw almonds, covered half of those in dark chocolate,

made potato, kale soyrizo chimichungas, black bean & corn salsa enchiladas, chik’n, kale, and goat cheese enchiladas, Thai red curry, almond poppy seed muffins, vegetarian-friendly Dotties – which means making biscuits from scratch), Jello “poke” cake (not from a box), homemade shortbread lemon curd bars,

and a slew of comprehensive breakfast burritos, quesadillas, fancy oatmeals, avocado toast, Greek yogurt parfaits, dishes with polenta, pico de gallo, and chile verde (I feel like I might be forgetting some . . .). And there are still over half a dozen dishes left on my must-make list.

I will say, summer has always been my favorite time of year to eat (at least since I moved out of the Central Valley, there, you can almost eat like its summer all year round). It sounds hippy-dippy, but fresh, colorful vegetables are so delicious. And beautiful. And I guess healthy, which is a happy byproduct of their aesthetic and gustatorial attractiveness.

My love of cooking (and baking – oh, sweet sweet cookies *drool noise*) didn’t start until I became a vegetarian and then it didn’t really take hold until the doctor told me how sick and anemic I was eating only French fries, ice cream and baby spinach out of the bag. Part of that bizarre diet was poverty, a touch of laziness, and quite a bit of I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I have a distinct, and in retrospect embarrassing, memory of falling all over these breakfast burritos my boyfriend at the time’s mom made us while we were helping her with a yard sale. I couldn’t get over how delicious it was. I mean, it tasted just as good if not better than the egg burritos at Don Pepe’s on Shaw Ave. It had eggs and potatoes and cheese. How did she create this magical concoction? If memory serves, she looked on me with a little bit of surprise and pity, and from then would occasionally show me how to cook stuff.

Another sad, but telling moment I remember is during the first year I lived on my own, I was standing in Food Maxx staring at the Suddenly Salad boxes and had the realization that I could make that. Like, on my own, without the box. “It’s just pasta, some stuff, and seasonings,” I thought. “I can totally make that!” So instead of bringing home the highly processed box of gawd-knows-what, I bought a bag of off brand rainbow rotini (I just picked the one I thought looked the most like what was on the cover of the Suddenly Salad box, but prettier), two tomatoes, a bag of baby spinach, and a can of olives. Later in life, I added spices and a cut up Boca chik patty for protein. Even later in life, I added more and varied vegetables and herbs and replaced the chik’n patty with chick peas or red beans.

Now, you may be thinking, doesn’t this person’s bio say they have an advanced degree? Cuuuzzz, she sounds kinda dumb right now. But the truth is, I know I’m not alone in these seemingly obvious ah-ha food moments. When you grow up eating out of boxes, cans, and fast food joints, it just doesn’t occur to you that food happens in another way. Even when I worked on the organic farm, the food that I helped pack: eggplant, basil, leeks – that wasn’t stuff people I knew ate. That was fancy shit rich people ate. I never put together that the amazing-smelling green leaves where just the fresh version of the dried delicious stuff in store-bought pasta sauce. There’s a dissonance between seeing something come out of the ground and seeing it in the grocery store or even more removed – seeing it in a box in an aisle in the grocery store.

I wasn’t a total food moron, my abuelitos had fruit trees in their backyard and I had helped my friend pick grapes on her grandmother’s orchard. My across the street neighbor grew green onions in the melee of random plants in front of her mobile home and her daughter and I would pull them out of the ground and munch on them during the summer (a precursor to my adult obsession with green onions). It was just the cooking part that seemed impossible.

There was further disconnect because my Anglo mom and grandmother (who was of the 1950s TV dinner generation of middle-class food culture) both cooked out of freezers, boxes, and off shelves: add water potato au gratin, Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper, canned or frozen vegetables. The only fresh food we ate at my grandmother's was an iceberg lettuce salad at every dinner that came portion-controlled in small bowls, each helping including lettuce, two tomato wedges and a few carrot shavings, dressing courtesy of Hidden Valley. On the other hand my abuela cooked constantly. She was always in the kitchen making rice and beans, heating up tortillas she bought from the lady down the street, drying, crushing, and blending her own chiles, prepping chicken or carne asada. She and her friends made tamales at Christmas, but the custody agreement between my parents made it so my sister and I were never around her cocina then. While my dad, his brothers, and abuelo sat in the living room watching sports or sat on the patio drinking Coors and smoking cigars (a.k.a relaxing), my abuela worked at the stove. When the men wanted to eat, she cooked. If one of them came over after dinner, she had a plate ready to go and heated it up for them. If one of them didn’t want menudo for breakfast on Sunday, she made them huevos y chorizo. It was not uncommon for her to make multiple meals back to back to suit the desires of her mijos.

My mom, more than once, talked about how she was a “modern woman” and wouldn’t cook for my dad the way his mother did. Even before they divorced, on Sunday visits to Abuelita’s, my mom refused to be relegated to kitchen with the women while the men took over the rest of the house. The underpinning of these stories were that strong women don’t serve men, white women don’t serve men. “Traditional” women serve men; Mexican women are “traditional” and subservient.

Of course, the issue is so very much more complicated than that. But young minds (and ignorant minds) don’t know how to differentiate, especially when there is already cultural tension at play and you don’t know where you fit. This cultural tension, familial tension, coupled with poverty, a single mom who didn’t have time (and really didn’t know how) to cook all worked together to create the muddled and confused way I thought about food and food preparation (I’m not even going to start the long discussion regarding my understanding of food through the diet culture I grew up. Let’s put a pin in that). I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t made the choice to eat vegetarian, would I ever have discovered the wealth of food options that regularly pepper my adult weekly meals.

Being forced to cook for myself because of moving out at a young age and not being able to eat out (or eat what everyone else was eating) not only made me a more adventurous eater, but it also helped me discover the joy I feel creating delicious and nourishing food that I can share with my family and friends. Every time I cook and bake it is an act of love, not just for the people I share food with, but for myself. Cooking from fresh ingredients and understanding what goes in my body is a continuously renewed commitment that I am worth the time and energy it takes to be healthy and enjoy eating. Though I know the summer days are slipping past and I still have a lot of writing I should/want/need to be doing, my time so far this summer certainly isn’t being wasted.

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