Thursday, January 16, 2003

I never got to know either of my grandmothers. Anna, my Sicilian-born maternal grandmother, died of chronic heart disease at age 67, only two months after I was born. My father's mother, Julia, lived to be 87, but although she lived only a mile away from us and was in the picture until the end of my junior year in high school, she was never an especially communicative person. (This is a bit of an understatement. Julia lived in the U.S. for over 70 years but never learned much English; since none of the family members thought it useful to teach me any Polish as a child, I never -- not even once -- had a direct conversation with my paternal grandmother.)

Although I never got to taste my grandmother Anna's cooking, she passed me the garlic meme through my mom. I've never been a serious student of cooking, nor do I entertain very often, but I do like to play in the kitchen, and Allium sativum is my all-time favorite toy. So, although I never knew Anna, my Sicilian grandmother has had profound effects on my life (and on that of my husband, who has come a long, LONG way since his first terrifying encounter with extra-garlic Boston pizza). At the same time, my minimal culinary contact with Dad's side of the family has left me with almost no Slavic influences on my tastes in food. I thought about this passing down of gustatory memes last night, while attempting bi bim bab for the first time.

Okay, it wasn't hard; I bought a pre-fabricated bi bim bab kit from a local Asian grocery. The Korean proprietrix explained the proper vegetable-wrangling techniques, and recommended an excellent hot soybean-pepper paste for seasoning. I already knew about the egg, and for my first try I made a vegetarian version. It turned out okay, and I was grateful for the advice, but I've also realized that what I really need in my kitchen may be more grandmothers.

I need a Lebanese grandmother to teach me about shawarma, and to show me how much za'atar to add to fattoush. I want a grandmother from India, who can mix a perfect garam masala and whose chapati always puff up perfectly. My Japanese grandmother will be a whiz with sushi. My German grandmother's sauerbraten is always optimally vinegary.

I want a Nigenan grandmother who knows exactly how to season jellof rice, and which greens go best with yams. My Chinese grandmother should be from Sichuan, of course; enough said. My Mexican grandmother, with great patience, will finally teach me to appreciate mole sauce; ditto my Irish grandmother with soda bread, and perhaps my Swedish grandmother will satisfy my curiosity about lutefisk with only minimal trauma. My Jewish grandmother will have a much easier task, as long as she makes the world's best kugel. My French grandmother will know exactly which wine goes with everything.

All of my grandfathers, of course, will have to be excellent athletes who can collaborate to design my personal training program. I'm going to have to do something to burn off the effects of all that food.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Our Spanish class starts tonight. We'll be joining a dozen other friends for an informal conversational course, taught by a longtime friend who is an experienced languages instructor and has lived and traveled widely in Latin America. About the only language reference we own right now is an old Latin American Spanish phrasebook and dictionary set, which Rick bought before a business trip to Guatemala in 1995. The phrasebook contains all sorts of useful information for checking into hotels, ordering restaurant meals, and carrying out the other customary activities of vacationers and business travelers. It's occurred to me, though, that if I find myself traveling in a non-English-speaking area (and especially in the tropical Americas), my translation requirements might be a bit different:

"Are all the tarantulas in your country as attractive as this one?"
"My centipede requires fresh crickets."
"I have lost my aerial net. May I borrow yours?"
"Do not touch that caterpillar. Its spines are venomous."
"No problem, sir (ma'am). I am not afraid of scorpions."
"Please direct me to the habitat of your largest earwigs."

All I know is that if the group does travel to Mexico or South America this spring, I'll cause a lot of people to shake their heads. Hell, I got enough funny looks in New Zealand when I asked about the best places to photograph cave weta ("In a cave, you dumb Yank" was probably the unspoken subtext of most of the replies), even though everyone I met in New Zealand was gracious enough to give Americans full credit for speaking something resembling English.

Ah, entomology ... the international language of bugs may need no translation ....