A search for culture, community, and identity leads us to the tangible pieces that contribute to those intangible concepts. Our lives are a constant process of coming and going; we see, hear, touch, and taste millions of different things, but only some are significant enough for us to connect with. Those pieces that we identify with, that we imbed with meaning, join our inner menagerie of odds and ends, which individually seem meaningless but are subconsciously curated as a whole to form our sense of self.
One of those pieces tends to be a dish that harkens back to our childhood, conjures familial dinners, or invokes the face of a loved one. Regardless of how long it’s been since eating that dish, one taste can send us back through the haze of time to a particular kitchen and a particular plate.
For the Cobos family, shrimp ceviche, a popular dish in South America, connects them to their lives back in Ecuador. Reina and Daniel, who met and married in the United States, grew up separately in the same country. In fleeing the corrupt government, Reina’s father arrived in the United States in 1970 without a visa. Sixteen years later, after finally obtaining the proper paperwork, he was able to send for his children. Daniel’s father originally came to the United States for a medical operation but was deported. After later returning, he was able to send for his children in a similar process; Daniel came in 1984.
Growing up, ceviche had been a major player in their lives. Reina, along with her cousins, learned to make the emblematic dish from her grandmother. The children had to peel the shrimp and carefully clean both sides, but they would also eat some. Every time she peels shrimp to make ceviche, Reina remembers those days sneaking a bite and spending time with her mamá.
“When we lived in Ecuador, we only had it on special occasions: at parties, if it was someone’s birthday,” Reina remembered. “Seafood was expensive.”
In February 1991, Reina and Daniel found each other while working at an airport. Their courtship was rich with dates to the ice cream parlor, and their wedding dance was to Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” Their daughter Daniela, born in 1997, rounded out their family. Together, they traveled all over the world for Daniel’s career with the U.S. military. No matter where they went, ceviche always made them feel at home.
After returning to the United States for good in 2003, ceviche continued to be a staple of their lives. At least once a month and whenever Daniela returns from school, they have ceviche together. Daniel always gets Ecuadorian shrimp, which makes the dish both tastier and a little more like home.
Just as Reina learned to make ceviche from her grandmother, Daniela learned from her in turn. Although Ecuadorian food and culture has always permeated Daniela’s life, she didn’t always want it that way.
“When I was growing up, my mom used to chaperone field trips, and she would pack us both lunch. It would usually be rice and lentils or hen or some other Ecuadorian food,” she explained. “One time on a field trip, kids in my class made fun of my food, and I wanted to cry because I was so embarrassed, but my mom told me to just continue eating. She told me to never be ashamed or back down from any aspect of my culture just because some people didn’t understand it.”
In some cases, a lack of understanding between cultures and even food can cause a rift. In others, that food can act as a bridge to connect those cultures and birth something even better in the process.
The Sundays of Arianna Sikorski’s childhood were spent eating sourdough blueberry pancakes in her family’s Alaskan cabin. Her parents moved to Alaska in the 1970s with a sourdough starter they had received from Don Partridge, who traces the starter through his grandmother to his great uncle in the Gold Rush. Sourdough was popular during the Gold Rush and generally in the wilderness due to its longevity and portability. Sikorski’s family called upon these traditions during their time in Alaska and often used their sourdough starter to produce pancakes for the whole camp on a documentary project.
When Sikorski left Alaska for school and travel, she took a bit of the starter with her. During her college days in California, she would share pancakes and other sourdough-based treats with all of her friends.
“Sourdough was always drawing community together and connecting with my childhood,” she explained.
As Sikorski began to branch out farther, her sourdough starter branched with her. From college in California, she then spent over a year in New Zealand, fully submerged in the culture and absorbing the stories of the people around her. As these families shared their food, stories, and traditions, Sikorski looked for a way to share her own story. The sourdough, steeped in American history and tempered with her childhood, provided the perfect bridge.
“The sourdough is a way for me to say, ‘This is my culture, this is my story, this is my identity. And it’s amazing that I get to share that with someone else.”
Wherever she went in New Zealand, Sikorski shared her sourdough and often cooked alongside her hosts. Anywhere she travels, she brings her sourdough starter and offers it up for communal cooking, which she catalogues on her blog, Taste My Culture. So far, she has cooked with the starter in fifteen different countries and with around forty different families, some of whom kept a bit of the starter for themselves.
The starter dough, which she describes as “bubbly and playful,” has been along for all of Sikorski’s most meaningful experiences. It combines the mornings spent at home in Alaska, her college days in California, and her travels around the world. In fact, the sourdough is more than Sikorski. Not only has it seen the Gold Rush, but it has also embarked on separate journeys.
The way that food takes on a journey of its own, the ways it becomes something new for each person who experiences it, is one of the reasons that it is so powerful.
John and Antoinette Rocco loved to gather their family. Antoinette was the cook of the family and prepared plates of pasta and meatballs. John, on the other hand, was the baker. He loved to make delicious treats to share with his family, keeping them looking forward to dessert. If you ask anyone in the family, they will assure you that his best work was apple cake. Once John perfected the recipe, they requested it for every birthday party and holiday celebration, becoming a staple for the Rocco family.
“I remember apple cake being at every family gathering,” Marissa Rocco, John’s granddaughter, said. “Sometimes, I would come home from school or a friend’s house, and I knew my PopPop had been over because there was a cake wrapped in tin foil on the counter.”
When John passed away in 2013, his loss rocked the family. Carrying on his baking traditions became a way not only to remember him, but also to continue including him in family events. His daughter-in-law, Sandy Rocco, picked up the helm. She had learned the recipe under John’s careful tutelage, emphasizing the time crucial to create his iconic cake. The batter, apples, cinnamon sugar, and nuts must be carefully layered in the pan.
“Apple cake, to me, means family. It means love,” Sandy explained. “It is that invisible thread that keeps me and my father-in-law connected. It’s a way for him to live on and still be a part of our holiday and family celebrations. It may seem strange, but when I make this cake, I take my time. I talk to Pop and take time to remember and be grateful I had him in my life.”
When asked about sharing the recipe for PopPop’s Famous Apple Cake, Sandy assured me that John was always happy to share his recipes. In fact, he would ask her to type up his recipes so that he could more easily share them. After he passed away, she printed the recipe on small banners to hang in the kitchen, a place that PopPop has never left.
If I were to pick the most significant plate of my life, it would be shumai. Ironically, shumai actually has very little to do with me. Long before I was born, Margaret Wyatt, my mother, began working at a Chinese restaurant. Although they sold Americanized dishes to the public, they served more traditional meals to the staff. As a result, my mother learned to make both. She also fell in love with the owner’s son, Ming. They made many things together, from dumplings to my brother Ryan.
Although Ming and my mother did not stay together, she did her best to keep Chinese culture, particularly of Cantonese tradition, in Ryan’s life. They made regular trips to Chinatown in Philadelphia, and my mom often made our favorites at home. When I was born, a decade later, we continued to go to our favorite spot for dim sum (which I hesitate to mention here as if sharing the secret will make it less special) as well as spend days at a time in various shops and markets. Growing up, I remember enjoying celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31, but looking forward much more to the Chinese New Year we would spend in Chinatown.
I got pretty good at making shumai. I remember cleaning the shrimp and mixing it with ground pork, mushrooms, and oyster sauce. My mother let me mix with my hands, which were then covered in sticky pink goo. Then, we would place thin dumpling skins over the circle of our pointer finger and thumb before pressing a bit of the mixture in. My mother could make the sides fold neatly, but mine are always a little bit wrinkled. Regardless of how they end up looking, they always smell great as they steam and taste delicious.
When I studied abroad in England, I was the farthest and furthest from home I had ever been. Although I loved exploring the beauty of the countryside and the bustle of London streets, I found myself missing home. During a trip to Oxford, my companions and I happened upon a Chinese restaurant for lunch. I often order dumplings and shumai in restaurants, but very rarely find something like what I used to eat at home.
However, in this unsuspecting restaurant in Oxford, I bit into a small dumpling and tasted all of my childhood. I tasted the afternoons with my hands covered in the flour that coated the dumpling skins. I tasted the mornings I would stare groggily out the train window on our way into Chinatown. I tasted the family split between two worlds in an attempt to guide a son to his own culture and a daughter along for the ride.
Pieces of Us is an article series that explores the different fragments that make up our identies. While waiting for the next installment, share your own food connection in the comments below.
Rachel Barton is a media intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is always searching for that perfect dumpling.