Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eat...just like old times...part one

Tree Carvings on Ferry Island in Terrace BC

As I write, I am sitting in the house that formed my primary education in food. My mother is Portuguese by birth, having arrived on chilly Canadian soil as a child in 1959…and I am Portuguese by acculturation via these four walls. I grew up, for all intents and purposes, in my grandparent’s house here in Terrace. The small, simple house at the end of a quiet street, anchored by a giant old cherry tree and flanked by lovingly tended gardens. The house where there is always more food than its inhabitants (and neighbours, for that matter) could possibly eat. Where my grandmother does not greet you with a traditional “Hi” or “So good to see you” but “Did you eat?”

After 48 hours here, memories are flooding back and now in a more reflective state, induced no doubt by my recent foray into motherhood, I am starting to make myriad connections between who I am now as a dietitian, a cook and an eater and my formative food experiences which occurred right here.

Life in this house revolves around food and wine. Everyone who enters will either help themselves to whatever is on the kitchen counter - cake, boiled taro, fried broad beans – or will be lovingly force fed these and more upon taking a seat. If you don’t eat, my grandmother will offer more and different types of food until she finds one that you like and will eat. Not being hungry is unfathomable and therefore you are refusing because she has not correctly guessed what might be appetizing to you.

My culinary history is filled with a historically appropriate dichotomy of traditional and “modern”, simple and processed, home grown and store bought. Arriving in Canada without immediate access to the foods she knew and wanting to make a life in harmony with her new nation, as was common for immigrants of the time, my grandmother embraced Canadian foods with open arms. Mid century marvels such as Shake and Bake chicken, Jello molds, Cool Whip and Duncan Hines cake mixes shared pride of place alongside the familiar caldo verde, feijoa assado, massa sovada and arroz doce of our Azorean homeland. I remember as a child eating all of these traditional foods happily but still wanting the brand name treats I saw on the Saturday morning commercials. So I pleaded for my grandmother to buy Lucky Charms (from which I removed the toy and left in the cupboard, uneaten). I bought Chips Ahoy and Oreos instead of eating homemade meringues and butter cookies. But I sat down and ate every kind of vegetable imaginable (Brussels sprouts! Kale! Cabbage!) without complaint. And then I downed Pringles for dessert. Now that all of the grandkids are grown up, the processed foods feature somewhat less frequently than the foods of my grandparent's youth but the chips and candy are still hiding in the same spot…ready for snack attacks whenever they occur.

I spent my childhood watching my grandmother move deftly through the kitchen with admiration. A chair beside the counter was my prime vantage point. There were bowls to be licked (cake batter and cookie dough) and chicken to be shook and I didn't want to miss a minute of it. The turning point in my culinary education occurred one day when I was waiting to shake chicken. My grandmother had received a phone call before she could stuff the first piece in the bag, leaving me on the chair, staring at the chicken…dying to shake it. Patience was not one of my early virtues, sufficed to say. Pestering my grandmother as to when we could make the chicken, she simply stated, “you can do it yourself”. I could? This was serious business. I had not touched raw chicken before. It was slimy. And weird. But as my pulse quickened with the weight of the decision, my impatience finally outweighed my trepidation and so the fingers gingerly grabbed the chicken and placed it in the bag and shook away. Emboldened, I tried another piece, then another, until I proceeded to finish the entire batch.

Do you remember those commercials, the one where the little girl exclaims “It’s Shake and Bake…and I helped!” That day, I did...indeed.
My grandfather, as in many traditional European homes, dictates the menu by virtue of what he will and will not eat. This makes learning to cook in this house more difficult. One can assist my grandmother, but taking over the menu will leave you at the mercy of my grandfather’s critique, honed by years of exacting standards at my grandmother’s hands. My mother knew better than to try and take over the reigns until she had her own family to cook for. I, however, had to learn the hard way.

I remember getting permission as a child to make dinner with my friend, T, one summer vacation. We decided to make fajitas. My grandfather took us to the grocery store to gather our ingredients and once at home we set out creating chaos in the kitchen from which a fairly passable meal emerged. We were so excited to present the first “real” dinner we had ever made. I must have been 8 at the time but what I remember most vividly from that experience was that my grandfather informed us that we had sliced the steak incorrectly, going against the grain.
My grandfather had been a meat cutter when he first arrived in Canada.

Thankfully, he was not able to dampen my enthusiasm for cookery…but let’s just say that young child never again attempted to feed her grandfather. My husband, however, has fared far worse experiments and eats them without complaint. How times have changed...

More to come,

Post a Comment