We live in difficult times. Because we are wired the way we are, when we are stressed, we turn to foods that feel comfortable, reassuring and safe. Some people turn to soft, creamy things like macaroni and cheese, or ice cream, or oatmeal. “Mom Food” is what others want: meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or chicken and noodles, or chili. We turn to our country of origin when we need reassurance, as well.
I was one of those kids whose craving for candy was so intense that I would search not only my own couch cushions for loose change to buy it, but the couches of waiting rooms, neighbors’ houses, and church as well.
I have heard many Midwestern people complain that they don’t like the taste of curry, and therefore will not eat Indian food at all. I can relate to that, but I just find curry powder pretty boring. Curry powder itself isn’t Indian. It is an invention of the British that was made to export during their colonial occupation of India. It is a blend of coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, celery seed, and other spices. I think it’s the fenugreek that people respond negatively to—it has a weirdly earthy, sweaty smell that you either adore or find repellent.
Everything in my garden is dead. The tomatoes are crispy dead with a side of wilt. The pumpkin plants shriveled up and their lovely umbrella leaves melted away last week. This makes me really sad, because one of the only reasons to live in Kansas in the summer is eating our garden treasures. Our pug dog Lulu lives for tomato season, waiting for the blooms and little hard green tomatoes, which she harvests before they are ripe. We plant one grape tomato plant just for her. Olive, our other pug, will knock down corn plants and inch her body along the stalk to nibble the ears.
Real Chinese food is nearly impossible to find anywhere in the central United States. There is plenty of Americanized Chinese food around, most of it deep-fried, oily, and swimming in sticky sauce. Superbuffets overflowing with deep-fried meaty bits in sweet red sauce, weirdly soft beef bits in brown salty sauce, unidentifiable pork bits in clear salty goo, or broccoli, peas and carrots with tofu in spicy sweet-sour sauce sort of sum it up around here. No wonder the food police are out to get Chinese food—all that fried greasy saltiness is just irresistible to Americans.
Lots of people I know are texturally sensitive eaters. They won’t eat anything slimy, bouncy, gummy, gelatinous, or spongy. Even the idea of tapioca pudding gives them the shivers. I once shared a meal with a friend who, on encountering a piece of sticky, chewy beef tendon in the soup, spat it out and spent the rest of the meal miserably shuddering while I ate the remainder of her pho.
Our growing season in Kansas is brief and violent. One month we have nothing but lettuce and radishes poking up through the snow and the next we are leaving giant baby-sized zucchini on the neighbor’s porch under cover of night. Eating seasonally in this area is challenging, since for eight months we have nothing at all and for four months we have too much of everything. Summer in Kansas is a tomato-basil-cucumber-pepper avalanche. It’s fantastic for salsa lovers.
For as long as I have known how to read, I have been obsessed with cookbooks. I read them everywhere, on the plane, in bed, and of course, by the stove. My best cookbooks are dog-eared, splashed with sauce, and broken of spine. They have a scratch-and-sniff quality that I find comforting. Here are a few of the books that inspire and teach me about cooking to this day.
This is the time of the year when my thoughts turn to gardening. It’s all about what I want to eat…not so much about the actual work of planting, weeding, tending, and harvest. I pore over seed catalogs, plan, order, and fantasize. It’s really mainly about the fantasizing. I am definitely not thinking about weeding when I place my orders!
I have mentioned many times my passionate love for all Vietnamese cuisine. I love pho, banh mi, fresh spring rolls, everything. I could eat Vietnamese food every day and be perfectly happy. Whenever I need comfort food I heat to one of many favorite places and immediately feel better. I have found lately that I go to one particular place more often than any other: Little Saigon.