On Being American

I don’t really know what strawberry rhubarb jam is supposed to taste like.

The women in my family aren’t jam making types, and… do they even sell this stuff in stores? Either way, I had never tasted it until I made it, and once I did, I couldn’t tell if it was any good. It seemed yummy to me, but I’m sure I possess zero instincts regarding jam. So I kept shoving spoonfuls of it in the faces of the boys I live with. “Good?” I’d say. “Any good?” And for once, I really didn’t know.

I’ve been thinking about this for a little while. Not about jam, exactly, but about my impulse to make things I know almost nothing about, things my mother never made. Jam, pie, cheesecake, jell-o molds, chili dogs, baked beans, green bean casserole. You know, picnic food. American food.  

When I tell people I love to cook, a question, maybe an inevitable one, crops up all the time. They ask me if I learned how to cook from my mom. And I always find this question hard to answer because the true answer is: Maybe. Kind of. Because I’ve spent hours watching her cook, but I never seem to make the kinds of things she made when I was a girl. Maybe it’s because I know she can do it better. Maybe it’s because we are very different women, and the food we make is part of who we are.

Or maybe it’s about recapturing a history, a way of growing up, that I wanted but that I never really had access to. I’ve always nurtured a lively, vacant nostalgia about Americana. I didn’t have these things: hot dogs, hamburgers, grill outs, picnics, potato salad, lemonade. (Though my mother, I think foreseeing this sense of loss, gave me wonderful pot roast, beef macaroni and chicken soup.)

Still I had other things, unenshrined in our cultural imagination, but often better, tastier, more fun: roast duck, century eggs, boiled chicken, soy milk soup. And I don’t think I’m cashing in on ethnic difference here. It’s all true. Chinese people don’t have barbecues. I think this and I feel a little sorry for myself and then I remember what this country actually looks like. And it occurs to me that my upbringing was, perhaps, more quintessentially American than grandma’s jam.

So maybe it’s fitting that today, instead of celebrating American independence, my family will witness a somber Chinese tradition. Today we mark the seventh day of the seventh week since the death of my grandmother. For me, a ceremony of great emotional importance and opaque denotative meaning. We will eat soy marinaded short ribs and spicy noodles. We will drink and feel sad and miss her and later, watch the fireworks.

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

Being, as I said, no expert on jam, I’ll do the responsible thing and refer you to the recipe I used from Orangette. I substituted half the berries for rhubarb and used about half the suggested amount of sugar. Bada bing! It worked out great, I’m told.

7 thoughts on “On Being American

  1. Erik says:

    Corn and rhubarb… your latest posts have me pining for the Midwest. 🙂 Lovely writing — hope you enjoyed the fireworks.

  2. Vivienne says:

    The women in my family ain’t jam making type either…hehe in fact I don’t think anyones ever made jams before! haha.
    Love the pic of the strawberries…so fresh.
    Haha and same here, I watched my mum cook growing up but I realise that I also don’t make the stuff she cooks…!

  3. John Mears says:

    Epilogue: The fireworks were pretty good, but the photo of the rhubarb on the cutting board is a classic.

  4. zoomyummy says:

    Oh, how beautifully you told the story about your origin and growing up – foodwise. I just love how you put words together. You are a TALENT. And needless to say – I looove the jam – it looks irresistible – YUMMY! Have a wonderful week. 🙂 Petra

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