As a child, the last school bell signaled the heat of warm sunny days, the smell of cut grass, the chck-chck–chck of sprinklers. I relished the idea of uninterrupted weeks enjoying these hallmarks of summer, firmly ensconced in a comfortable library chair. Some of my fondest memories of childhood center around sitting in the library stacks, book in hand, legs up rebelliously crossed against the bookshelf. Rather than haunt the young adult section, I loved the cookbooks. The first Bush was in power, broccoli was out and processed foods were in. I am sure the librarians puzzled about what a scrawny fifth-grader was doing in the underused cookbook section, but I frankly enjoyed the quietude.
I read the recipes as novels. The books extolled great American life with discussions of such strange delicacies as ambrosia, hot chicken salad and aspic. This was an America that I had never really known. Looking back on it, my middle class neighborhood was full of outsiders. After long days of capture the flag, neighborhood boys against girls (girls rule), I might find myself eating Tamil rice, congee, collards, or chitterlings. Ours was not the America of one dish wonders.
Our housekeeper was the first person to explain the casserole to me. Mrs. D had survived the Great Depression by helping her mother run a boarding house. Then there was a career as a Chicago radio singer and a stint as a cook in the Coast Guard during World War II. All of this life experience resulted in a woman who could serve a home-cooked meal with very little else to recommend it than being in great quantity and on time.
Nonetheless, her meals had a strange cachet. They were a color that I had never associated with food—white, all white. There were endless variations of meals made of cream of celery soup. There was mayonaissy potato salad. There was milk toast. And, there was chicken and dumplings. I remember very vividly begging my mother to make the cauliflower curry once. I had carefully asked Mrs. D the ingredients, noting them in my mind and then later writing everything down in my lined notebook. The ingredients are still sitting there in my memory—1 bag frozen cauliflower, defrosted; 1 dash salt; 2 dashes curry powder (available in the spice aisle of any grocery store); 1 can cream of celery soup; serve with minute rice. My mother must have thought me insane when I asked her to make it for dinner. Here was a woman who grew up in the land of curry and had never one considered “curry powder .” She was also a woman who worked long days as a doctor and still managed to cook a meal with 2 vegetables, rice and chappati without the aid of a single can of soup. Nonetheless, as I was a light eater and she would go to great lengths to increase my calorie intake, my mother agreed to the casserole but drew the line at minute rice. The result was as I had hoped—bland, salty, and white. It was the kind of food that my school friends ate. It was normal.
While it is often said, it is nonetheless true that part of being an immigrant to the United States requires defining yourself in relation to the norm. Before the PCness of the mid-90s, there seemed to me enormous pressure to conform (rather than embrace your differences.) The one Indian restaurant was basically for immigrants and there was no ethnic aisle in the grocery store.
Once in school for a nutritional unit, we were supposed to write our weekly food intake to learn the healthfulness of our diet. When the assignment was passed out, I noticed things that we ate like dal, vali ambat, idli sambar were not listed on the calorie sheet. A good student (talk about a stereotype), I immediately asked my teacher how I should proceed. Maybe your mom should just make American food this week was her response. My mother is an admirable cook—truly exceptional. But, her forays into “American” food often leave a great deal to be desired. For example, there was one early incident of pepper steak, in which the avocado green serving container and the steak had a greener tone than the pepper.
So, it seemed to me, I might take matters into my own hands. I would make something from the calorie chart. What was more all American (and verging on the white side) than Chicken and Dumplings? I sat down with the recipe and considered the elements. There were new words—dredge, slurry, to brown. There were new concepts—saltandpepper to taste, the partnered set of spices that are essential to the American kitchen.
Sitting here, I still remember the feeling of making that dish: the nose-tickling smell of measuring out black pepper and the mental calculation of what “to taste” meant; the satisfying sound of sizzle of the chicken; the smell of the flour cooking. I also remember being stunned that the recipe omitted the keystone of my diet—potatoes. Even then, I knew recipes were suggestions. I rectified that omission on the spot by cutting up some Idahos into tiny, tiny cubes and tossing them in with the rest of the vegetables.
I don’t quite remember the reception of this dish. I can only guess that it wasn’t delish. Looking back, it was full of white flour and undercooked roux. But, this was my first dish. While I had always helped in the kitchen, chicken and dumplings was something I had found, planned, made and loved.
Soon after this incident, and the lackluster chicken and dumplings, I moved onto more exciting fare. Thanks to the now disgraced Frugal Gourmet, I made preserved lemons and chicken tagine. Within a couple years, American culture was becoming more focused on multiplicity. It was the time of the hyphenate. I was now Indian-American. But interestingly enough, I would make the chicken and dumplings again and again for years from memory. I still make it (with changes.) The whole recipe might have started as a measure of fitting in, as an element of my anthropological interest with the culinary work of middle America. But, it ended up being mine—my own cuisine, my own part of the American experience.
Thanks to Gluten Free Girl for the writing prompt about the first dishes we learned to make. Lets see if it cracks the blogger's block.
Chicken and Dumplings
Not too long ago I tried to recreate a family recipe. This one is unlike that one in many ways. I really prefer drop dumplings. But, this evening I had everything but the dumplings finished when I went to the Church fair with the girls. When I got home, my husband ended up making roll dumplings. Mine generally look like the less flattering picture at the end of the post.
Dredge chicken in flour that has been seasoned with salt, pepper, turmeric. I often use a combo of chickpea and wheat flour.
Then add 1 medium red onion in rings, potato and carrots. Brown well.
Add 2 T red miso paste, 2 heaping T homemade hummus, 1 dash tamari, dill and parsley.
Add cooked chickpeas and stock to cover and simmer. Just before serving add corn, green beans, lima beans, and a handful more onion (this will be a different texture than the browned ones.) Finally, drop in the dumplings. Put on the lid and then let it steam.
2 cups flour
2 t baking powder
2-3 T shredding cooked beets
2 heaping T minced parsley
2 heaping T minced dill
1 scant cup cup buttermilk
Drop into steaming stew.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Labels: Family Recipes