I just turned 37. I’ve been cooking in one way or the other for nearly 30 years now. I started young; being raised as a daughter by a Mexican-American family pretty much guaranteed that I would know my way around the kitchen. Generalities aside, I certainly didn’t have the passion for food that I do now. I didn’t lust after it or ogle pictures in food magazines, though I’m 100% sure that it would’ve been different if we had the internet back then. I also didn’t have much interest in learning new techniques or trying new ingredients. Growing up in landlocked New Mexico and Arizona, I wasn’t a food explorer. We ate what we ate, and a lot of it involved beans, rice, ground beef, chicken, chile and tortillas. However, I did understand that eating dinner together every night was important to my mom, at least when we were young. She could never really articulate why it was so important when we would attempt to argue with her. I can look back and easily realize that countless defining, awkward, revealing, uplifting and somber moments took place around a kitchen table, any kitchen table–ours at home, my grandparents’, aunts’ and uncles’ houses, and even while visiting family in Terrenate, Mexico after a cow was freshly killed and butchered to feed visiting extended family and a township of 300 during a cousin’s wedding. My cousin Arnold was the only one of us brave enough to sample cooked cow’s blood; he was the original Andrew Zimmern and to this day will try anything–anything–at least once. I didn’t understand how food creates community, belonging, first phases of lifelong friendships, yearning. How it settles arguments and forces us to face one another after a particularly hurtful episode. Or how it defined us as a family and as members of society. I guess most kids don’t.
I also didn’t realize how food could create, or serve as an accomplice to, conflict. My dad loved, and I’m sure secretly still loves, potted meat. Yes, that catfood-like meat product paste in the small blue cans. My mom could never understand why he wanted it, but bought it for him at the commissary week after week only after thoroughly expressing her disgust for the stuff. For him, it evoked powerful memories of working in the fields when he was a kid. It was the only thing my grandmother could wrap up in a tortilla that would survive the South Texas heat while he and other kids his age toiled away day after day. And it was the only thing waiting for him when he could finally sit down, wipe the sweat from his face, take a short break, and just breathe. Potted meat was my dad’s peace. Decades later, after serving in Vietnam and retiring from the Air Force as a ground systems mechanic, he had his first heart attack. My mom dealt with it by rearranging the furniture a few times (including the kitchen table and a ridiculously unwieldy grandfather clock) and going on a cupboard cleaning rampage. It was no more potted meat for him. No more anything fun for him. For a little while, anyways. For some people, the threat of dying becomes diluted with enough time and at some point you decide that if you’re gonna die, it’s gonna be with a goddamned cheeseburger in your hand.
My brother James and I were latch key kids since both of our parents worked. He’s 8 years older than me in age and 15 years younger than me in maturity. When I was about 9 years old, the height of my independent culinary expertise involved making myself a quesadilla every day when I got home from school. Tortilla, sliced up cheese from an unmarked brown box, zapped in the microwave for 45 seconds. Maybe a little salsa on the side. You should know that I have always been scent-oriented. I used to smell everything in my path like a house-bound dog taking its first walk ever, and to this day I experience my environment nose first. I also had borderline OCD until my mid-20′s. One day, I was going through my quesadilla ritual and getting ready to dive in, but before I could enjoy it I needed to smell the tiny pools of grease on the surface of the melted cheese. I leaned over and before I could do anything else my brother walked into the dining room, pushed my face into that quesadilla, and continued on his way. Grease all over my nose and tears filling my eyes, I grabbed a napkin and vowed to break something of his later. I tore off a piece of my defiled quesadilla, took a quick, nervous glance over my shoulder, held it to my nose, and rebelliously sniffed. Deeply. Like, you could hear me inhale. I popped it in my mouth and slowly chewed, plotting the ultimate revenge. I can’t remember what I did exactly, but it resulted in James getting grounded for something he didn’t do.
I write a little about how and why I relate to food in my About Me page, but I didn’t really fall in love with food until I went to college. I was on my own for the first time, about to become a semi-grown-up version of myself via education, lots of partying, melding of the minds with new friends on and off campus, some random sex, and learning to feed myself because the cafeteria (do they still have those??) food sucked. Armed in my dorm room with a microwave, crock pot and illicit hot plate, I cooked. I experimented. There were many disasters but my pork fried rice, heavy on the garlic and ginger, drew cramming neighbors from their rooms into mine. I fed people. I brought them together. I was a rock star. And my rise to dorm room chefdom couldn’t have happened without this:
My mom’s friend and work mate, Beaj (pronounced BJ) Anderson, gave me this cookbook as a high school graduation gift. It was my first and only cookbook for many years. Beaj was the switchboard operator at DynCorp, the defense contract company where my mom worked in human resources. There were of course no cell phones and texting or email wasn’t an option. If I needed to reach my mom for any reason, I called her at work. Every time, without fail, Beaj’s voice would greet me. “DynCorp, how can I help you?”. “Hi Beaj, it’s Sunny. May I please speak with my mom?” (remember phone manners?) ”Oh, hello! Just one second, I’ll connect you.” I can still hear her voice, clearly. Beaj and her husband Sid, a contractor, lived a couple of miles from us, near my high school. We used to visit them all the time, and she always had candy or cake or something sweet to offer. They were at every birthday, graduation, anything worth celebrating. And Beaj always brought a thoughtful gift for me. The last time I saw her was at Thanksgiving in 2005 during a visit to my folks in New Mexico:
I remember my initial shock because she had always been blonde. Her hair turned dark when it grew back after a round of chemotherapy treatment. She was diagnosed with cancer, started treatment but couldn’t handle the side effects, stopped treatment, then lived for another few years before passing away. I’m not a religious person but I hope that somehow she knows that she’s greatly responsible for my food curiosity and growth. From this single book, I learned how to follow and screw up many recipes. I learned how to shop for the week and be prepared with all ingredients on hand. I learned, concretely, how to not kill people with bacteria while studying the food safety section. I learned about different cuts of meat and the appropriate treatment of each. All because of her. And I hear her gentle, always lady-like midwestern voice every time I open the stained pages, or tape together a torn and well-loved section, or mark a favorite recipe with a post-it, or put the fat rubber band back around it before putting it away. Most chapters have detached from the spine from so much use. It is the perfect first coookbook. Thank you Beaj.