So I have a few vices. It does not include harmful substances, well it does. It can cause heart defects, obesity, bad bowel movements and well there are numerous other ways that it can harm you. If done in excess, of course.
Home was a city that was ruled by majority Mexican Americans, and middle class Caucasians. It was here I learned the word Gracias. Where cheerleaders got the perks, and football games were the rage. Blue collar working class folk with families. Considered “Cow Town”, Chino wreaked of cow dung and manure. It was once a farm town whose inhabitants were mostly farmers and migrant workers. I remember a certain girl in French class who would ALWAYS copy off this nerdy lanky kid named Keith.
“Mr. Villneueve”…I said…
“Lisa is copying off Keith again”…
“Shuttup Tina” was the reply.
Lisa was orange, with crispy hair. She always managed to keep a bottle of Aqua net at her desk. Or was it Rave? It was those typical moments that really reenacted those classic television snippets that defined the jocks vs. the others.
It was here in Chino where I got my taste for cilantro, salsa picante, delicious grilled meats, and quite the affinity for tamales.
The SUPER MERCADO. A completely different experience. The ladies at the checkout counter always remembered my mother. Spanish tabloids alongside Elle. The meat section even had a different smell. Tortillas, corn, matza mixed with sweet ripe fruits where mangoes were plentiful and pineapples were a staple. Oh and that sweet sweet bakery. If I wasn’t asking mom to buy a frozen pizza, I would often ask her to get a few pastries including a dense yellow cake with a light layer of pink frosting speckled withthose tiny rainbow confections. Oh it was so buttery and so good with milk.
Sometimes after school I would get locked out. I would often stay at my neighbor, Carla’s house and eat her mother’s simple and delicious heart clogging food. Beans made with lard, fresh tortillas, different types carne fried in Canola oil, rice with bits of potato and carrots. My siblings were with extracurricular activities, my mother and father were at work, and my absent minded self would always forget the keys. I learned to open the windows with a screwdriver at this time. Looking the unordinary robber, I tweaked and screwed my way into the house. With a jump and a climb I was in. It was either the front or the back into the kitchen…either way I got in.
I met many girlfriends and their mothers who would influence my palate.
Rosa was her name. She lived 4 blocks away from me. I would often walk to her house and the numerous different Latin-American flavors, but like all other homes in the area rice and beans were always a staple. Our family had our jasmine rice. Rosa would often snack on Lays’s potato chips with lime and Tapatio, a spicy condiment that laid on the table naturally like light. From the different homes I learned to fall in love with Carne Asada. How delicious is flank or skirt steak that is marinated with fresh herbs and spices and BEER. How oh that meat was marinated and grilllled up to perfection and succulence when it landed in your mouth. The freshness and the intense flavors that acompletely married together once rolled inbetween that warm tortilla. Oh how I crave a good homecooked taco once I landed here in San Francisco.
So I ran into Michelle. She was a neighbor that I met during my freshman year of high school. As she stated…Her mother was a single mother of two…and it was here that I was introduced to American Consumer goods. If she had a class she would name it American Consumer Goods101. Michelle was a young vibrant girl with the gusto that would rival Donald Trump. Bless her lovely heart, she is now in NYC and a successful spirited woman. Michelle and I would walk to school together…I in my shorts and tanktop and her in her jeans and dare I say it her TYE DYED SHIRT!!
Often times most parents were at work so most of my friends had to make their own snacks. Simple tortillas fried in oil with cheddar sandwiched in the middle. After school I soon discovered how tasty cheese would be after being melted in a microwave. Simple fare that was new to me and warm to me. But as tasty as those morsels were, I still longed for my mother’s rice and soups.
Frozen packaged goods. Hostess cakes. Not much was homemade, but I was introduced to such sodium loaded and ornately packaged items. It was however, early on with the help of my father that I discovered American fast food.
Summers were year round in Chino and so were the BBQ’s. It was a juxtaposition of American side items and Mexican staples. Potato salads alongside grilled meats, hot-dogs and tamales, and guacamole side by side with a ranch flavored sour cream. Junior high and high-school were the pinnacle moments of my suburban epicurean delights.
Fried Chicken, Pizza, and Bar B Q. Meats. My mother never really fried anything but eggrolls. She was really concious about what the family ate. She wanted everything to be cooked at home, not only because it saved us money but because American food was full of unmentionables.
She told us that “American food” was fattening was harmful and full of chemicals. Processed foods were never really kept in the house, so that meant: no cookies, no sodas, no beer, no alcohol, no butter, no bacon, no ham (no deli meats), hot dogs, chocolates. There was MSG but when mom found that she was getting headaches from it she launched it out of the window. It was hidden in the very very deep dark crevice alllll the way in the back of the spice cabinet.
When I started going to school I would get excited over American deserts like chocolate cake! Pizza was another favorite, and of course always with pepperoni. American food was such an interesting and delicious thing for me. Who could resist potato flakes turned into mashed potatoes and gravy! There was pizza in the plastic wrapper, hot dogs wrapped in a bagel, orange juice, chocolate, or plain milk in those cute mini milk cartons, fruit in a cup, mousse in a cup I mean pudding, goodness what else was there?
I learned that I really like mashed potatoes, I really like gravy, I really liked mustard. Sometimes I would beg my mom to let me get those nifty Handysnacks or Lunchables, just so I could fit in with the other suburban children. They never really made it to lunch the next day. I enjoyed my time immensely in the Asian market with my mother. Here there was this odd juxtaposition of American packaged goods and Vietnamese, to Japanese, to Chinese. I usually wandered off when my mom was haggling with the fish mongers. Jimmy Dean Sausage patties, Swanson chicken pot pies, amongst frozen crab claws. Chips like Doritos, Lays and all those major brands were amongst; Shrimp Chips, Banana chips, dried squid with chili, preserved mangos with chili…oh and those sticks that came in a cup and you could tip them in chocolate. It was a virtual portal into taste bud heaven!
Oh the smells of the Asian Super Market–moth balls, meaty, fishy, it often wreaked of Pine Sol.
As I got older I waited in the car. While mom was shopping I was listening to KROQ or some of my tapes. By this time my strict mother was letting me go to friends houses–well, that took a bit of coaxing. It was here that I came upon those wonderful backyard BBQ’s. American style cooking, steaks, casseroles, more pizza. It was different food was different, ambiance was different, packaging was different even other mother’s plastic containers were different. Most my friends lived in track homes, or cute one story suburban gems. Our family lived in a cozy apartment.
Cakes…my mother’s butter cake was dense and sweet and buttery, American cake was soft fluffy airy, and so fun to make. I talked earlier about a cake that I made with the dark brulee crust that was well BURNT. But it was experimenting with these packaged items that really helped me become a bit of a guru with pre packaged foods. Pre-portioned out cake mixes, those packaged boxes of noodles and sauce where you added the beef. This was magic to me. I experimented with different meats, different aromatics to add to the packaged goods
While my brothers got to hang out with their friends I was at home waiting to see if they brought me home any chips. My favorite were those Andy’s Fries. Those semi spicy fry shaped chips. On the cover of the bag was a somewhat Wimpy (from Popeye) like character with a large newsboy cap that covered his eyes. The sodium rich and crunchy morsels were so exciting for me, and so were Slim Jims.
I never really felt a sense of difference, we were always one of the few Asian families in the whole city. I just really enjoyed my youth going to friends houses and eating their mother’s food.
My father took care of his family and he took care of us 200%. Giving all his heart and tender soul to his precious wife and children. Even though both were always at work their love radiated throughout the house. Like many of the families in the area he always dreamed of was winning the lottery, winning that American dream. Dad would buy lottery tickets at the liquor store a few blocks from home. He bought various scratchers and of course the Super Lotto–He wanted the Jackpot! On Saturdays he would always tune into NBC to see if his name was ever called to be on the Lotto show. It never was. It was a simple game of hope, and wishes that would never be granted. He never took it extremely seriously but a part of me knows that he really ached to win…for us.
Oh the liquor store. Sour Warheads (the candy), chips, Drumsticks, different juice drinks you name it. Sometimes to a child’s eyes the liquor store had more than the supermarkets. Such a small concentration of so many impulse items. A virtual Vegas for children. All the sinful teeth rotting treats within a concentrated environment of liquors and beer.
Now I realize how much of an impact all this really had on me. I now will make lovely slow braised meats and stews that highlight both cultures. Admiring the similarities and the differences, I am now able to appreciate all the spark of both cultures. An anise flavored stew will mimic the taste of Pho while the cilantro and fresh diced onions will take me back to that beautiful Pozole of the past.
As the holidays creep around the corner, I miss the days when Carla or Christina’s mother would knock on our apartment door and drop off their homemade tamales. Pork, beef, chicken, and sweet beans would gently lay themselves on our rickety kitchen table. My mother’s crisp and piping hot eggrolls would dance playfully with the flavors of the Mexican cocina. I realize how blessed and not cursed I was to be surrounded by the authentic and hard working class people that made up our neighborhood and community.