From an early point in my life, I have been fascinated by two things – cultures and cooking. And I guess both of those loves came quite naturally, now that I think about it.
Let’s begin with cultures. My mom’s parents were missionaries who relocated their family to Montevideo, Uruguay when she was 4 years old. They embraced that culture in order to share their love of God with their neighbors in South America, remaining there for over 30 years until my grandfather’s death. My mom moved back to the states when she was 16 to attend college in Virginia. That’s where she met my dad, who also had some interest in latino cultures after a college semester abroad in El Salvador.
In the early 70’s my parents took a trip to Japan where they sampled many different foods. One favorite was a spicy katsu curry dish – which my dad has been trying to replicate ever since. He always says he knows it’s getting close to the original if our eyelids are sweating from the heat of the curry. I ordered the dish in a Japanese restaurant in DC last summer to see what the original might have tasted like (pictured above). My parents would throw Japan-themed dinner parties for their friends when I was a kid, my dad would put on his kimono and cook up tempura and other dishes they had learned to make. On rainy days, my mom would fry up sopaipillas – puffy diamond-shaped doughnuts, and we’d bite off the corners to drizzle clover honey inside the hollow spaces. On special occasions she would boil a can of sweetened condensed milk to make dulce de leche, which we devoured on saltine crackers.
Forgive me, I’m already digressing into my love of food – let’s get back to my history with cultures. When I was in first or second grade, my teacher buddied me up with a girl whose family had just immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. Tran barely knew any English and it was my first real experience with someone very different from myself, and yet somehow we managed to communicate and discovered that we were very much the same. Later in elementary school, I discovered that you could write to embassies in DC (this was before the internet, so think snail-mail) and they would send you stuff — glossy brochures with lots of pictures of people and places, alphabets of written foreign languages, recipes, and small souvenirs. My brother and I spent one summer writing to at least 20 different embassies and waiting for those large manila envelopes to arrive in the mail. In high school, one of my close friends was a refugee from Laos, and in college I had a Chinese roommate and a good friend/study partner from Ethiopia. Through these friendships I continued to soak up cultural learning, a welcome thing in that rural Virginia community which has only in recent years begun to boom with great ethnic diversity.
My undergraduate college required a cross-cultural experience, and I chose to take a semester abroad in Guatemala. We spent the first two months living individually with families in the poorer neighborhoods of Guatemala City, studying language together in the mornings and history/culture in the afternoons. On weekends we traveled around Guatemala and Belize, and the final month was spent traveling briefly through Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Some of my favorite memories from that trip are food-related; cooking with my host family (we’re making sugar cookies in this photo), frozen choco-bananas, markets full of new fruits that I’d never seen before, visiting a banana farm, etc. Even a visit to McDonald’s in Guatemala City (to which I had to be dragged kicking and screaming!) resulted in a culinary journey back to a simpler time… when apple pies were actually fried in lovely trans fats :)
Well, I’d better save some memories to share with you later. Suffice it to say that as an adult I have continued to enjoy and learn from many cross-cultural friendships in my jobs, graduate schools and church.