Afterthoughts: Memories Live On Through Food
The family recipe.
Photo: Michael Keany
I had a pretty good Mother’s Day this year, for an unexpected reason. My mom lives on Maui, so after calling her to talk story and send love her way, I spent the evening with my girlfriend cooking up one of her mother’s recipes: fried chicken drumettes. Nothing fancy, but it was a dish she grew up eating—the kind of thing her family would make every once in a while and then all gather around the dinner table to enjoy.
This was the first time she had tried to make it herself since her mother passed away a few years ago. She had to feel her way through the exact mix of seasonings—adjusting the ratio of flour and Old Bay and other spices—and it took a couple of tries to teach me how to properly hand-coat each piece of chicken, but when we were done, her eyes lit up: This is exactly how it tasted! As we sat down to eat, the food was delicious, but even better was the feeling of reviving a warm family tradition. My girlfriend said it felt as though her mom was right there, watching over her, and I had to agree.
I’ve got a dish that I make occasionally for similar reasons. I only make it back to Maui once or twice a year, but in the meantime I can sometimes use an infusion of warm fuzzy family feelings. And that’s when I cook up a big pot of sour cereal, one of my favorite dishes growing up.
“What is sour cereal?” you’re probably asking. It’s a hot breakfast porridge, originally from India, that’s filled with everything from coconut and dates to tomatoes and onion—the perfect balance of complex flavors, with a kick of chili pepper heat. My mom learned how to cook it during my parents’ time at an ashram, around the time I was born. (Hey, the ’70s were a soul-searching kind of time.)
The cooks at Siddha Yoga Ashram in Oakland, Calif., would make huge batches of sour cereal every morning to feed the devotees, to keep them satisfied during the long meditation sessions. It was so good, my mom says, that before my parents left the ashram for new adventures, she secured the recipe from the cooks. The ingredient list was scaled to feed hundreds, so she converted the recipe down to normal-family quantities, and a Keany family tradition was born.
I’m not a wiz in the kitchen, but fortunately sour cereal isn’t hard to make, just a lot of ingredients to gather and combine. One bite of the finished product and I’m transported back to my childhood. When it comes to sparking warm emotions, this is the closest thing to magic I know.
It’s fascinating to me how much of a family’s tradition and memory is passed along in food. I know, on a factual level, my parent’s history, and the history of both sides the family farther back, but it’s in the dishes I grew up with that it all really comes alive. The roast leg of lamb with mint jelly, from my mom’s East Coast upbringing. The fried plantains from my dad’s childhood in Costa Rica and Cuba. The pickled herring in sour cream sauce from my mom’s Norwegian first husband. They’re all part of my family somehow, a weird, unique amalgam of recipes and stories that feels like home. How do I know I’m part of this clan? I know how to cook these dishes.
And of course these traditions keep evolving. My grandparents knew nothing about sour cereal. And, if I or my sisters ever get around to having children, those kids would certainly grow up fluent in Hawai‘i food traditions that my parents never served up—poi and poke and kim chee and ramen. It’ll always be a weird mix of so many different threads, but the tapestry it creates will be ours. And as we sit down to dinner, we won’t just be thinking of those at the table, but those who aren’t, as well—a real family meal.