by Celia de la Cruz
AFO Guest Contributor
Celia de la Cruz, a teacher and former editor at an academic press, writes about literacy & identity studies, outdoor education, & stories from her childhood and adolescence. Her work has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary, Filipinas Magazine, & NewsWorks. Lately, she loves the sound of katydids & screech owls.
The sticky rice was a disaster. She looked steadily down at the slate sidewalk and slowly opened the wrought-iron gate. Once the engine of the school bus faded into the traffic several blocks away from her house, she transformed. She ran up the path to the porch steps and flung her cumbersome canvas tote bag over her shoulder while holding a cookie tray that was loosely covered with aluminum foil. Her brother made it to the door first. “Hold the door for me!” she hollered. He looked at the covered cookie sheet quizzically. “Did people eat that?” She moved passed him and ran into the kitchen.
Her mother came in from the backyard with a potted geranium and placed it on the counter, ready to take pleasure in repotting while listening to Debussy on the radio. But the soft harp at the beginning of “Afternoon of a Faun” was drowned out by a wail. “Nobody wanted the sticky rice, Mom! They thought it was weird!” Sobs, deeply tucked away like a long-lost letter, rose from her belly as soon as her mother gently rubbed her back. She was crying not because Greta’s mother came into the sixth-grade home room carrying a Black Forest Cake in a white bakery box and everyone gasped with delight. Not because Josephine dished out her family’s German potato salad while Mrs. Foxbury smiled approvingly. Not because Josie McMurty’s mother and Cora Halligan’s mother showed the class how to make Irish potatoes and she found herself wanting seconds.
She cried because a few nights ago after dinner, when she still didn’t know what to bring in for “Family Heritage Day” at the Catholic academy where she was one of three students of color in her grade, her mother suggested that she try a recipe from Grandpop. She cried because Grandpop was an old Filipino sailor and chef who became part of her mother’s life again after years of being absent during her growing years. She cried because when the family visited Grandpop’s apartment on President Street in Brooklyn on many a Sunday, he would shuffle between his tiny kitchen and dinner table, wearing an apron over his dress shirt and pressed trousers, warming up his grandchildren with the roast in the oven. She cried because Grandpop’s roommate Tony mingled with the family and showed her pictures of his grandson in California, while his other roommate Santiago stayed in his room, staring at the brick wall outside his window. She cried because when her mother called Grandpop to get his recipe for sticky rice, she could see her mother’s joy as she jotted down his instructions. She cried because she knew that he was tenderly telling her mother, “You need dee…ah…get dee sweet rice and dee coconut milk bor dee birst part.” She cried because she helped her mother mix the soaked rice into the simmering coconut milk and together they figured out how to transport the overly glutinous bars by wrapping them in tin foil packets. She cried because her classmates averted their eyes once they opened the tin foil packets. She cried because she saw that a number of uneaten packets were in the wastebasket by the door. She cried because the sticky rice was never really a part of her. And then it became a part of her. A part.
A part of me.
The rich palette of flavors from our kitchen emerged from my family’s Filipino and Black roots. Garlic, ginger, onion, celery, bean sprouts, and water chestnuts collaborated with black-eyed peas, grits, baked macaroni, sinigang, lumpia, and adobo. Then there were the Sunday roasts that always included rice and a thick gravy made from soy sauce and secret ingredients. Perhaps this is an example of cultural diffusion. I call it foodways that tell our family stories of celebration, hardship, heartbreak, migration, renewal, cooking on naval ships, and cooking with grandmothers who were raised down South.
Before I heard of sticky rice, Grandpop stayed with us and showed us how to make his renowned pies. Apple pie. Sweet potato pie. He told us that Mrs. Smith stole his pie crust recipe. If we went down the frozen dessert aisle of the A & P, we would see stacks of Mrs. Smith pies, and we would chuckle. Mom disputes his claim. “My father could always tell a good story,” she reflected. He showed Mom how to make his version of spaghetti on one of the hottest days of July. We walked with him to the A & P. Every now and then, he’d pat his forehead with a handkerchief while leaning on his cane. He pointed to the roll of ground beef, and within the next few hours, my brother and I could smell the sizzling garlic from the kitchen window as we returned from a bike ride. His spaghetti recipe lives on today in my kitchen. I tweak it a bit by occasionally using ground turkey and less salt. Last week, Mom returned a plastic container to me, remarking, “Your dad loved your New Year’s black-eyed peas.” Usually he offers some feedback, such as “more onion.” I followed some of his recipe and improvised by adding chopped mushroom and a small amount of pulled pork.
Why didn’t I bring apple pie or sweet potato pie to my sixth grade home room? Or baked macaroni? Or the cream puffs that my dad used to make on the ships during World War II and for his family? Or Gra’mom’s ginger ale fruit jello salad? It didn’t have to be sticky rice at all, yet the experience of a grandfather, daughter, and granddaughter working together to make something nurtured empathy and reconnection. It’s part of my story.