LG

Today is the 2nd anniversary of my mum-in-law’s death. It’s kind of hard to believe that Sofia, lovingly known as Lola to just about everyone, stopped walking this earth 2 years ago. We all miss her and miss her funny Lolaisms, her thoughtfulness and her pride in her 3 amazing children and 6 grandchildren.

One of her favourite Lolaisms was “LG!! Life’s good!!” And indeed it is, Lola. It is.

Chicken Back and Celery Rice

With the recent 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I’ve been thinking a lot about immigration: the stories of how people get around. How we face moving as a choice or as a last resort and how communities can or cannot embrace newcomers.

I was a very young child when Saigon fell to north Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975. I finally became more aware of Vietnamese refugee movement later in my childhood. At the time, my family belonged to the congregation of a Chinese Catholic church. The church, like many others of the time, began to sponsor Vietnamese families fleeing from Vietnam. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I can only recall two things that made any impact on my life: new choir members and crunchy, piping hot Vietnamese spring rolls sold at the annual church bazaar. If this was what welcoming newcomers was about, I was all for it!

I’ve been reading posts by Andrea Nguyen over at Viet World Kitchen and her family’s experiences as refugees from Vietnam early in the fall of Saigon. I was moved by her and many others’ families’ courage to leave everything behind and start anew without knowing what to expect. And I was also moved by the people who received them with open arms.

Although the experiences were daunting and emotional beyond what I could ever imagine, Andrea writes from a place of gratitude and “looking back to move forward.” She marvels at how she and many with similar experiences have made it in the world. And she’s grateful. I’m grateful she and so many others of Vietnamese heritage were given the opportunity to make a new life and share their talents with the rest of us.

Now I reflect on our current tight world immigration policies and wonder what kinds of talented people and their stories we’re shutting out.17386634181_fa694b9c6f_z

Here is Andrea’s recipe for chicken back and celery rice. Something about this recipe really struck a chord with me. Not only did it sound absolutely delicious, it reminded me of my Grandma who also lived through a lot of uncertainty raising two kids as a young widow.

Bittersweet

So much of life revolves around food: basic nourishment, health, celebrations, art, community. Tonight we gathered at the table for a timely, albeit somewhat uncomfortable meal. My dad gathered six of his closest church friends, my mom and my brother and I for dinner to discuss his final wishes. Dad is dying.

My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this spring, just about the time my mom-in-law died of the very same disease. Nasty, nasty cancer that it is. To date there are no reliable early detection methods for pancreatic cancer and survival rates are unfortunately low. In my mom-in-law’s case, it had metastasized so much that by the time she was diagnosed, she only had a few days to live.

Dad’s tumour, although not large, is inoperable and there are no treatment options. His health is declining and we’re noticing how cancer is slowly taking over and how Dad is slowly slipping away.

But true to Dad’s wise and practical nature, he’s taking care of business. As hard as it may be, he’s thought through endless details and has made his final arrangements. And of course he would share these with the ones he trusts most at his favourite place, the dinner table. So tonight we feasted on platters of Chinese food and talked and reassured Dad that things will be the way he wishes. We also laughed and joked and listened to Dad’s always eloquent stories of life, politics and travels.

Life is uncertain these days. But the table is where we can always find some comfort, solace and love.

Be the change

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” -Mahatma Gandhi.

For the past few years I’ve been rethinking our relationships with food. I, like many around me, love food and love to eat but I’ve noticed a real disconnect between people and their food. Somehow, there’s a whole generation of my peers, if not more, who has lost the ability or the will to cook. Why cook when we’re convinced that it takes too much time and energy, when marketers are seducing us with prepared foods, when the latest meal-in-a-box is deceivingly “cheap”? When cooking has become a spectator sport and when kids think macaroni and cheese comes from a box and bagged carrots are naturally mini?

I’ve been fueling a passion for food literacy, the ability to understand all facets of our food: its origins, how to grow or produce food, how to cook and eat it, its nutritional value, its social values, how our food choices affect the bigger picture. There’s no doubt that this evolution has been influenced by having a child and my desire to help him connect to food in a broader context. I knew from day 1 that one of my roles was to educate him about as much about our food world as I could, if not to give him basic life skills but to give him the knowledge to become an informed consumer.

Can I effectively change the next generation? Am I able to influence those around me to understand the food they eat and make healthy choices? I have to.

I started devising a plan, albeit a small one, to help me get my message out there. Start with my own child. Begin a dialogue about food, use all our senses, encourage him to cook and explore, grow food, read about food. Then work on his peers: take the Kid’s classmates on a fieldtrip to the community garden, host cookover playdates, talk about food. Small change but I felt that I was making a difference.

Then the potential vector for bigger change came my way. The posting for a job as a food coordinator at our local neighbourhood house landed on my proverbial plate. They were looking for someone who would work with different groups to build dialogue about food, to build capacity to feed themselves, to help revitalize an edible garden, to work with care providers of school aged kids to provide more nutritious snacks. And the job would be in my own community.

Gratefully I got hired for the position and I’m immersed in a warm, embracing atmosphere with supportive, inspiring colleagues and even more inspiring participants of all ages. I had worked in non-profit, community service environments for years before dabbling in other food related fields. When you’ve worked in the community, there’s a part of your heart that’s always rooted there. And when you leave the field, there’s a voice calling you and reminding you of what is important. I feel like I’ve come home. I feel like I can finally be the change I want to see.

Sweet embrace

Nothing prepares us for the loss of a loved one. Nothing. When someone vibrant, vivacious and full of life dies suddenly, it stops you in your tracks and things come to a standstill. You walk in a surreal fog and go through the motions and get things done and you consciously know what you’re doing and why, yet you can’t believe it.

We lost my mother-in-law this month. She died after a mercifully brief fight with pancreatic cancer that she faced with dignity, grace and bravery. She was resigned to the fact that she had had a good, full life and that if God wanted her, she was ready to go. She wanted us to remember her laughing and enjoying life and indeed we will as she was laughing and joking up to her very last breath.

In this sadness there is comfort and light. In reminiscing about touching memories of time spent together. In quirky mannerisms that we laughed about in life and will continue laughing about in the future. In family and friends that come together from all corners of the world. In the grandchildren who love her so. In community who embrace us as their own.

Ma’s community drew us in and held us tight with a tremendous generosity of comforting words, hugs, kisses, tears, prayers and food. During the mourning period before the funeral, our family hosted visitations and provided a customary sweets table for guests. Amidst the grief and sorrow, one after another tita brought platters of sweets that filled table after table: ube biko, cookies, orange sponge cake,  brownies, mango, ube and pandan sponge cake rolls, ensaymada, kutsinta, turon, cupcakes, puto…. And they did the same thing the next day. This kindness and compassion, which I had never before experienced, brought me to tears. The overwhelming outpour of generosity was simply a measure of what my mother-in-law meant to the community.

After paying their last respects, guests gathered by the heaving tables and ate some dessert and talked and laughed and ate some more. And that’s exactly what Ma would’ve wanted.

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Starting Early

I joke a lot about having our 8-year old son work in the kitchen. It usually begins with some seemingly daunting task like hulling 20 pounds of strawberries and ends with some remark about child labour. The funny thing is that I’m not joking. I am dead serious about encouraging parents to have their kids cook with them.

The Kid, age 2, seasoning ribs.

The Kid has always hung around the kitchen. When he was about 6 we decided that he would be an active part of preparing family meals. We established a weekly Kid-led dinner night: he’d come up with a menu, we’d look in our cupboards and fridge and figure out what ingredients we had and what we needed to buy, we’d shop together and then we’d cook together.

Gradually this novelty night has evolved into the Kid pitching in at almost every meal from making pancake batter to peeling and chopping onions to concocting his own seasoning for steaks. And he does it all with pride, knowing that he’s contributing to our family.

Doubtful about having kids in the kitchen? Here are a few benefits of cooking with your kids (there are many, many more):

  • You are spending time with them. There. The argument about not having time to be with your kids is out the window.
  • Kids need to learn the basic life skills of choosing healthy food, cooking it and enjoying it with others. By cooking regular meals with your kids, you are giving them valuable tools for self-reliance.
  • You are capturing and utilizing teachable moments. Imagine all the discussions you can generate about food: taste, texture, smell, math, chemistry, biology, where food comes from, how food affects us…
  • Your kids make a mess. Then they learn how to clean it up. And you get to practice patience, tolerance and letting go.
  • Kids are more likely to try new foods (or old foods that they thought they didn’t like) if they are involved in preparing it. Sounds like a cliché but it works.
  • Kids build a sense of pride and accomplishment when they can say that they took part in making and sharing a meal.
  • Although it initially seems like a lot of work and things take 20 times longer to do, kids will eventually be able to truly contribute and help in the kitchen.
  • You get to engage, build dialogue, community and an incredibly special bond with your children. And isn’t that exactly what parents want?

Cooking Therapy

When we are emotionally distraught we all do different things to comfort ourselves. Some of us spend time with loved ones, some of us spend time by ourselves. Some of us write, talk, shout, scream, swear. Yet sometimes we still feel helpless.

This past week, dear friends of ours found out that their preschooler has leukemia. Their world has been turned upside down in a way that I cannot imagine. My heart is broken for their wee one and for the pain they, as parents, are going through.

I feel completely and utterly helpless so I find myself in the kitchen doing what I do best: cook. I’ve been cooking a few meals and baked goods to bring to our friends. It’s the only practical thing I can think of doing. Yet I feel that it’s not much, certainly not enough.

At the same time, cooking is, selfishly, my therapy. While I plan and cook, I meditate and think of our friends and channel my energy into something positive. It’s my time to process what’s happening. My way of empathizing though I truly have no concept at all of what they’re going through. The energy I spend making a few meals is absolutely nothing compared to what they face.

So with every knead, simmer, slice and stir, I am thinking of you, Miss Cutie Petootie. You will pull through and we’ll dance and jump and giggle and play together again soon.