I love to eat and have been obsessed with food since I was a child. In fact when I was growing up, my mom used to always tease me about the two moles on my face – one near my mouth and the other near my left eye. The one near my mouth, she dubbed the great appetite mole. (The one near my eye was dubbed the crybaby mole because I had the dubious distinction in my family of crying a lot as a child).
I grew up in a Chinese home, and many of my classmates and friends all the way through high school were Chinese, so it goes without saying that the food I was most familiar with as a child was Chinese food – Cantonese to be exact. Dim sum was a constant, whether store bought or eaten at a sit down restaurant. But although I loved it, I didn’t think of it as being that special because it was everywhere, and everyone I knew ate it.
As I got older and was exposed to more American culture, I discovered pizza – not so much tasting it, as smelling it in the malls we visited and at the Woolworth counter, where pizza was sold by the slice. I was immediately enticed by the aroma of pizza, as it did not smell at all like the Chinese food I ate all the time. It was exotic and foreign, and its aroma tempted me every time I passed a food court. I never asked my parents to let me try some; we were working class, and eating out was a luxury. Because of this, I constantly fantasized about what pizza tasted like, what deliciousness awaited the eater as he/she bit down into the thin, cheesy slice. Because I was denied the opportunity to eat pizza for so long, I romanticized about how it must taste – how it was going to be one of the best things I had ever eaten in my life. I mean, how could something that was warm and smelled so comforting be anything less?
Now I had had pizza in those free lunches that we used to get in grade school, but it was more like foccacia, so that didn’t count in my mind. I wanted the thin crust pizza with the stringy cheese that Americans ate on a regular basis the way I ate dim sum.
I finally got a chance to eat my first slice of pizza in middle school, when a bunch of my friends and I went out to a pizza parlor one weekend. Here was my chance, finally, to sink my teeth into this ambrosial food that most Americans (and many of my friends) had eaten, but that I had yet to try. Would it meet my expectations borne of years of deprivation, or had I built up expectations to such impossibly sky-high levels, that nothing would ever meet what my imagination had dreamt up? Now that I think about it, I didn’t expect anything less than heaven. When I finally took a bite into my very first slice of pizza, it more than met my expectations. It was cheesy, gooey, salty, and had a texture unlike anything else I had ever eaten up until that point. It was quite literally, one of the best things I had ever eaten. All the years of patiently waiting for that day when I could sink my teeth into a slice of pizza and watch all that cheesy goodness ooze and slide off had paid off in spades. I no longer felt oddly different for never having tasted pizza. I had suddenly joined the club that seemed like the birthright of every American.
That love for pizza that started with that very first bite continued all the way through college, when pizza seemed to be the meal of choice while cramming for finals. Now that I’m much older, I still love pizza, but it seems fewer places make it the way I remember it when I took that first bite, or maybe time has played a role in romanticizing my taste memory of it.
At the same time, I have a much better appreciation for dim sum and Chinese food in general. I used to watch non-Chinese tourists eating at the dim sum houses in San Francisco, my home town – how it all seemed to be an adventure for them as they eagerly eyed the variety of small bites of food that rolled right in front of them on carts – and for a moment would try to put myself in their shoes. For a brief moment, I would understand the fascination, as nothing in the normal American diet could compare. But soon enough, I would go back to thinking it was just dim sum and nothing really special.
When I went off to college, I got to really try cuisines from different cultures for the first time, which greatly expanded my palate. I have gotten to appreciate all the new flavors and textures of all the different foods that I have tried over the years, but having tried and loved all these new eating experiences, I have come full circle and realized what a unique way to eat that the dim sum experience is. It’s unlike anything else you are likely to encounter, much like eating Ethiopian food with your fingers or the small side dishes that is Korean banchan. What I’ve come to realize is that almost all cultures have a uniqueness to their cuisine. Food equals memories, and almost everyone has fond memories of the foods of their childhood, regardless of how pedestrian the food may seem to others, or even to those who are currently growing up with it. Like my relationship with dim sum, we tend to come full circle back to what we grew up eating – the food of simpler and happier times – and appreciate it that much more. What I’ve really come to appreciate are the stories and memories behind the foods that people grew up eating in their own culture. I see them as windows into our shared humanity. After all, at the end of the day, isn’t that what brings us back to the table?
What are some of your food memories from your childhood? What were some of your favorites? What seemed exotic to you? Please share in the comments.