In the book Harry Potter (allow me to nerd out for a second), Professor Dumbledore takes Harry to his office to view what’s called a Pensieve. A cauldron of mysterious liquid that when you dip your head in transports you to another dimension, a vivid memory of sorts in full view. Harry sees the characters of this memory and feels their every emotion, his mind in the present yet physically playing out the events of the past. This magic is familiar. A magic that I notice when eating something so nostalgic it transcends the memory and its setting and pulls out a well of emotion. It explains how every plume of steam wafting into my face when opening a rice cooker I savor like an expensive facial. It reminds me of family. Transports me to watching my dad pour a tin of Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts on a bed of steamed white rice. A dish that I can’t tell whether its deliciousness stems purely from nostalgia or of actual gastronomical merit with its sweet crunchiness paired with fluffy, warm grains.
The slurp of a noodle pulls me home, sitting at my family's kitchen table in the suburbs of Anderson Township. I see my mom facing away from our worn Panasonic TV, rolling her eyes at the lack of conversation as she slurps her noodles covered in Prego’s meat sauce. Me and my dad stare blindly past her grievances to enjoy the other member of our household, Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak. My dad’s in deep focus as Pat announces the next category. His chopsticks flaking the crisp outer edges of his tender soy marinated salmon, intertwining it with strands of spaghetti coated in Prego for a Taiwanese Italian American bite that should be in category all its own.
Our culinary scene existed on Beechmont Avenue, a five-mile strip of plazas frozen in the 90’s with restaurants ranging from our beloved McDonalds to Applebee’s. No restaurant on this stretch of road had more impact on our family’s table than the Chez Panisse of Anderson Township, The Olive Garden. It was the fanciest restaurant on Beechmont, a destination overflowing with Honda Odysseys and wooden benches squeezed with large white families I envied with four generations between them. On the occasion that we went to Olive Garden, with plastic pagers in hand, I dreamed of the impending joy of endless buttery bread sticks and oozy white macaroni shells and cheese from the kids menu that I still order today, my American dream.
Over time, our kitchen table began to evolve. My mom started making spaghetti for the first time, except there were way more raw carrots (“good for your eyes so you don’t go blind”) and way too much steamed broccoli on top (“nutrition for solid poops and growth spurts”). The Olive Garden became a template for our family to navigate, a North Star to which we could use as a guide to emulate the pinnacle of the American experience we saw in the white families surrounding us. “Fake it till you make it” my mom used to always say. Except, we were never going to be a white family. We were a Taiwanese American family in the heart of a predominantly white, suburban neighborhood. A mom and a dad with an only child. First generation immigrants with only their native tongue and just enough money to eat their dinners at Burger King in the early years. A family working exponentially harder and longer than their white counterparts to be noticed, to survive, to thrive. A family navigating our identities through the dishes we ate, emulating white restaurants and white families, only to create a delicious point of view that stood all on its own. Dishes that intermingled family staples of fried rice with fatty deli ham from the local Krogers marinated in soy sauce. Recipes that paired the tradition of hand cutting noodles, vibrant green with spinach, and slathering it with a hearty meat sauce; blurring the lines between the nonnas of Bologna and the aunties of Taipei. We were always going to be a family of our own unique identity, no matter how hard we tried not to be.
It's thirteen years later in San Francisco in a Victorian apartment crammed in the heart of the Mission that I pay too much rent for. I’m trying to find my way back home, setting the table with dishes as if I were concocting my own magic cauldrons of memory. I set a rice cooker filled with white rice for three, even though I’m the only one home tonight. I’ll stir fry tomatoes folded between delicate scrambled eggs, despite tomatoes being out of season. Meat sauce from Lucca’s across the street is on the stove, warming the kitchen with an air of familiarity. Because as I build my own life now, a son without his father, I fondly cook these dishes. They’re the most powerful Pensieve’s I have. I set the dishes on the table with Wheel of Fortune in the background, ready to be teleported like a portkey to countless suburban nights with my mom and dad, magically whole again, even just for a moment.