Finding Meaning in My American Kitchen

Know Thy Food and Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Anna Cools
4 min readFeb 15, 2020
Photo by Max Delsid on Unsplash

Food writing. Kitchen writing. Writing about food from the heart of the home as an expression of roots, culture, meaning, and belonging. That’s the kind of food writing that I love. The kind of food I love. The most meaningful and deeply rooted food writing is also about history, belonging, and resistance.

I think food writing is interesting anyway, but that it is so often included in the writing of minorities — those who refuse (or are unable) to coagulate in the great American melting pot, is compelling. In The Kitchen Crisis, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor writes about the kitchen, about black American food, about white appropriation of those foods, how “white folks are always stealing and borrowing and discovering and making myths” about food. In How to Tame a Wild Tongue, Gloria Anzaldúa writes “food, and certain smells are tied to my identity, to my homeland.” Her descriptions of the food her mother prepared are mouth watering, but have more than the sense memory of delicious, ethnic, homemade food. There is a closeness, a belonging, a connection to people and place, that is missing from the oppressive culture of white America that demands taming of her “wild tongue.” And other stories and books… Jhumpa Lahiri, Angie Thomas in The Hate U Give… These authors write about food as part of their cultures. They don’t use food to create an emotional connection between reader and work, they don’t have to. Their food is a part of them. You are what you eat. They are culturally connected in ways that meat and potato America never can be.

That cultural connection is something that my grandparents and great grand parents traded in years ago in exchange for the coveted “American” brand. Meat and “Hungry Jack” instant potatoes, green bean casserole with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and French’s crispy fried onions on top, Kool Whip and strawberries on Pillsbury biscuits. There is not an ounce of connection in that, unless the eater longs for a brand that has monetized a nation’s appetites.

When I eat mediocre-at-best American food, I find myself eating more than I want to or planned, because I am chasing flavor. Chasing that satisfaction of flavor, that only a small amount, even one bite will satisfy. I can’t find that in “American” food. And what is American food, anyway? Stolen, borrowed, and discovered from the cultures that traded in their identities for the melting pot ideal. Take what’s sacred and demystify it by mass producing and monetizing it. But there’s no substance left once America is done American-ising it. I chase flavor, but I am sure I also chase belonging and identity. Home. Connection to a place I am known and loved. Based on the tremendous popularity of ethnic restaurants in my foodie city of Portland, Oregon, I am sure that I’m not the only American who does this.

I guess I have a little more than many Americans. I cook and always have, but then, my mother was a rebel. She was a rebel, but not a good cook. She had an understanding of nutrition, so she taught my sister and I the principles of preparing a plate that was appealing and had the elements necessary to be beneficial to the family: protein, vegetables, carbs, fiber, etc. Also different flavors, cooking methods, and colors. Sauté, steam, bake, fresh. Our food was not typical American. It was a mix of whatever we had in the garden seasoned with whatever we had in the spice cabinet, and influenced by my mother’s hippy/western rockies roots. Soy milk, tofu, bulgur, wheat germ, homegrown vegetables, and whole grains.

I had the opportunity to go to Israel when I was 15, and that changed the way I thought about food and flavor. The smells of the spice market in Jerusalem, the taste of the fish, the meat and tomato sauce with olives, chilis and oil… I developed a new palate. The smells and tastes are locked in my memory, just like the smells and tastes that I encountered in other places. When I encounter food with depth and meaning — with real flavor — I lock it in my memory, and can call it up later at home. Even years later, I will catch a breeze of inspiration and suddenly go at it in the kitchen, recreating what I barely remember. That usually happens when I have a paper due or a final coming up. For example, I always make Pork Vindaloo Masala during finals. It’s a way of escaping the hard stuff for an hour, and getting lost in a sensual world of taste, smell, movement, sight, and listening. The listening is to the popping and sizzling, the glug, crisp slice, chop, chop, chop; the bubbling. I am missing something, because I am chasing something that I never had, and never will have. Real meaning in food as connection to roots, family, culture. I do hope I’m creating something new for my kids. Maybe they’ll come home on break from college just to get some of my homemade bread or one of our favorite family soups. I hope I can give my kids some food-roots, even if they are borrowed, stolen, or discovered. But in doing so, I will strive to give honor to the cultures whose comforting sense of home I am borrowing from, and give thanks for their tremendous contribution to our family dinners. I’ll also tread lightly, and learn the history of the foods and cultures I cook from, so I can give credit where credit is due.

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Anna Cools
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studies English, writing, and advertising at Portland State during the day, and dreams of professional copywriting at night. After the kids go to bed.