Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mashed Potatoes and My Life Story

This is SippitySup's picture of his lovely garlic mashed potatoes. Click here to go to his must-read post on mashed potatoes two ways, simple and sumptuous.

I was catching up on my blog reading and came upon SippitySup's funny post on mashed potatoes. It reminded me of my own childhood experiences of mashed potatoes, which aren't that typical anymore (how the U.S. has changed!), but I think a lot of people can relate to my story. I gave this talk in 2008 on mashed potatoes at my school, and it seems only fitting to share this the week before our U.S. Thanksgiving.


I am here today to talk to you about mashed potatoes, those creamy, steamy mounds of buttery goodness.

My most memorable encounter with mashed potatoes occurred in 1983 at the Thanksgiving table of the Golding Family. At the time, I was a freshman at college and Laurie Golding was a sophomore transfer student, also in her first year. We met that fall on the field hockey field. We both played defense, I left wing and she a sweeper. We became teammates and good friends.

Since it was too far for me to travel back to my hometown, Laurie kindly invited me to her home to share Thanksgiving with her family.

Now I need to share a secret with you.

My mother had invested years of her life shoveling good manners into me, as well as developing in me the deep-seated belief that when I was out of the home, I was representing not only myself but the family, generations which were relying on me not to deface the family name.

My long-suffering mother, me in the orange dress, and my family

With my ears ringing with my mother’s admonitions and my heart full with an internal promise to be on my best behavior, I and Laurie travelled the winding Mohawk Trail down the Berkshire Mountains, across the width of central Massachusetts to the bustling hamlet of Arlington, MA, home base for Laurie, her family, and her many relatives. This was a rare opportunity to stay in the home of a non-Filipino family, so I was not only thankful but a little curious as well.

Imagine this scene. A lace-clad table extended to its full and glorious length, groaning with the weight of a glistening, golden turkey and all the side dishes. The table seemed to go on and on, surrounded by the members of the Golding Clan -- immediate family, aunts, uncles, cousins, and me. Everyone was talking and having a good time, and I was enjoying my foray into the life of another family. In the din of happy conversation and patter, I filled my plate and took my first bites.

Wanting to compliment the cook, I leaned forward so that I could address Laurie's mother from my position near the middle of the table, she at the end.

"Mrs. Golding, these mashed potatoes are delicious."

Encouraged by her smile, I continued.

"What brand are they?"

A flash of bewilderment crossed her face. Thinking she could not hear me amidst the noise, I spoke more loudly.

"What brand are the mashed potatoes? Hungry Jack or Pillsbury?"

At my question, the table chatter seemed to stop mid-conversation. Everyone looked at me and Mrs. Golding.

"Why, they're real, dear."

"Oh," I said, "I didn't know you could make mashed potatoes from real potatoes."

There was a pregnant pause, and then everyone burst out laughing. The thought of an Irish family using potatoes out of a box was unthinkable to them. To me, I knew I had just made a social gaffe of epic proportion and had flushed my family reputation down the proverbial drain.

The only time I had had mashed potatoes in my family before was once a year, at Thanksgiving. As an immigrant family new to this country in the 1960s, we knew little more about potatoes than McDonalds French fries or potatoes cut for stew. But, we knew that mashed potatoes were as American as turkey and apple pie. We saw the ads in the magazines -- every Thanksgiving table had a bowl of mashed potatoes. Every year, we would dutifully go to the grocery store and search the aisles for the box with the picture of the mashed potatoes. At the Enrique Thanksgiving table, the mashed potatoes would inevitably grow cold and congealed as the rice bowl was continually refilled and the platter of pancit was cleaned bare of its soy sauce and lemon scented noodles. The noodles represent long life in the Filipino culture and thus are present at every celebration. But the mashed potatoes, ignored as they were, had a place at the table, a rite of passage for a family of New Americans in the New World.

Pancit Canton

The Golding fiasco wasn't the only incident in my checkered life of bad table etiquette. Years before in 1974, I had made a similar gaffe, buried deep away from my mother and held to light only in the darkened box of the Catholic confessional. A sin? Maybe not, but surely something I thought could land me in purgatory – which is a threatened state of limbo for unrepentant Catholics -- if I didn't confess to the priest what I was shamefully hiding from my mother. In any case, Becky Garling, who was in the 4th grade with me at the Assumption School, and who also lived in my neighborhood, invited me to her house for dinner. This was actually the first time I would go for dinner at a non-Filipino's house, and again, I knew that the FAMILY, in capital letters, was relying on me to honor the family name. I was at the dinner table, and again, I was on the search for something polite to say to Becky's mother, who had just completed her dinner preparations. I scanned the table and its contents -- its plate of baked chicken, bowl of boiled carrots, and a lonely basket of Wonder Bread, sliced white bread that I knew was for lunchbox sandwiches. Something was missing... Aha! Excited with my discovery, I exclaimed to Mrs. Garling in my desire to be helpful with getting everything to the table.

"Where's the rice?"

When I saw the look of dismay cross Mrs. Garling's face -- you see, she had never had a little Filipino girl before to her dinner table – and heard her apologetic response,

“We eat bread, honey,”

my stomach fell to the floor. My poor mother. What would she do, with such a graceless daughter?

What was unthinkable to me at the time was that there could be a dinner without rice. In my house, rice was ever present, always available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yes, we had our share of Pop Tarts and Captain Crunch for breakfast and we ate the lifeless PB&J or ham and cheese sandwiches for school lunch. Well, at least three of us four children did. My older sister hated these sandwiches so much that she secretly threw them behind the clothes dryer until one day, with a broken dryer on his hands to fix, my dad exposed the hidden graveyard of dozens of crinkled paper bags filled with the remains of long forgotten sandwiches. Sandwiches, frankly, were flat, limp, and uninspired. But a breakfast of rice with eggs and fried Spam or bacon, sprinkled with vinegar? That was food that spoke to the soul. The same for an aromatic lunch of rice, stir fried meat, and vegetables. And dinner? Dinner was sacred. Rice wasn't an option but a must. How could one substitute a couple slices of sad Wonder Bread, I thought, for the life-affirming, fragrant, steamed rice?

Whether at the Golding table or the Garling table, these memories are carved in sharp relief in my mind’s eye, symbolic of the importance of food to culture. Within the United States, there are multitudes of Americans whose American tables celebrate the legacies of their first homelands. Mashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food for some, mixed with fond memories of family weekday dinners, holidays, and perhaps perfumed with the gratitude of previous generations that were sustained on the humble tuber. For others, it's white rice, not drowned in soy sauce or doused with butter and salt and pepper, but pure grains of pearly, sticky rice. For others, it's corn tortillas, cous cous, pasta, barley, or bread -- all meaningful in their own way, imbued with their own cultural power and memory.

My living as a foreigner in my own land, so to speak -- because I was born here in the United States -- and being a rice eater in a land of mashed potatoes and Wonder Bread -- prepared me for my own experiences abroad, living in Italy and Japan. Fast forward to yet another dinner table in Florence, Italy, in 1986, this time the vinyl-clad table of my Italian host family with my Chevy Chase, MD, born and bred Italian-American roommate, Erica Antonelli. In front of us was a first course of risotto, an Italian rice dish. It was absolutely delicious, creamy and dotted with pinkish morsels of seafood. My roommate inquired what it was, to which our host mother replied, "Polpo." Erica, whose ethnic Italian background was not that helpful to her speaking the language, looked to me for translation. "Octopus," I said helpfully to which Erica leaned forward over her plate and blew like a whale, powerfully evicting the offensive mouthful, sticking out her tongue like it was scalded. I felt sorry for Erica’s mother. As for me, I had already learned my lesson.

I hope that -- as you enter others' homes or countries that are not exactly like yours or as you welcome people from different cultural backgrounds into your home – you will remember that everyone comes to the table, so to speak, with different cultural expectations. What may seem unthinkable to you may be completely normal and even endearing to someone else. All is worth experiencing and celebrating, even with a few social gaffes here and there. I hope that you will appreciate all the world has to offer in terms of food and the cultural power it has, to beckon, evoke, and transform. Hopefully, you will learn to love new flavors, textures, and combinations, and make lasting friendships and memories along the way.

By the way, I now know how to make excellent mashed potatoes. And not out of a box.

Thank you.


Sippity Sup said...

This is thoughtful, artful and extremely beautiful. I am honored that you found the inspiration to share such a personal and meaningful story by reading SippitySup!

I just hope you don't confuse the snarky attitude I have breathed into Sup! as any sort of cultural indifference. Because Sup! is a bit of a made up character who sees life (and food) through I slightly different filter than I do. GREG

La Table De Nana said...

You are such an interesting writer...

I loved the potatoes,rice and octopus stories..and of course the confessional..I swear I said the same thing every week..
Father forgive me for having been not so nice to my brother.. to have made sadness to my mother etc..always the same!

Now it's in my heart and head..

I too wanted to make my parents so proud.
I love tasting new Italian friends.. Chilean.. Japanese..I have enjoyed every experience.
I even enjoyed Ravioli from a can in primary school at a friend's home and asked my mom why we never ate food from a can like that.


I thought they were lucky..

I thought you had to be rich as they lived in a wealthy part of eat pasta from a can....


Of course I also thought I had a huge back yard then some 50 yrs ago..I went was actually a postage stamp..

Thank you..I hope you do not mind I shared also:) You opened the gates of nostalgia..
Thank you!!

You have a beautiful family.
Happy Thanksgiving.

Ninette said...

Nana, what a great story! Isn't that funny about the pasta in a can? I ate a lot of that stuff when I was a kid.

The Little Teochew said...

I am in awe of your beautiful writing. This is such an entertaining, heartfelt, amusing, post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word. Thank you for sharing these personal anecdotes.

Ninette said...

Greg, of course, I don't think you're culturally indifferent. One only has to read your blog for awhile to know you're very culturally aware and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term. Plus, your food is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Lol at your potato story. Love sippity Sup blog. There are so many good blog out there. It's great to hear how they inspired you.

Orchid64 said...

This was very well-written and interesting. However, you do realize that there is bread in American culture other than Wonder bread (my family made its own) and that there are very good sandwiches to be had.

txvoodoo said...

This was a lovely post! And now I want the recipe for Pancit Canton :D

Ninette said...

Hi Orchid,
Hi, thanks for stopping by my blog and I wanted to respond to you. Yes, I now realize there are other breads and good sandwiches, but the Wonder Bread and bad sandwiches are what we saw other "American" people eating in our school and on commercials so that's what thought we were supposed to eat. I send my kids to school with bento boxes and there's much more choices these days. Not just PB&Js. There's been a lot of good changes in the US and diversity is much more accepted, food included.

Danielle said...

What a wonderful and beautifully written piece! You had me going with every word.
In truth, I cannot fully relate to your story; I was lucky to be brought up in a family with a mother who liked to experiment with all sorts of cuisine and in an area that offers an extremely multicultural variety of foods.
However, last Thanksgiving I shared dinner with my boyfriend's Taiwanese family and some of their family friends. It was a fabulous mix of both Taiwanese and American specialties and I am happy to say that the homemade mashed potatoes disappeared as quickly as the giant bowl of rice :)

Ninette said...

Hi Danielle, you remind me how much the US has changed in the last 20 years. Food culture is much broader now. When I grew up, people would call me "Chink." The overwhelmingly white community thought we all looked the same, our food was the same, and we were all weird. Same with the Spanish-speaking peoples, who were all "Spics," who ate Mexican food, etc. You also saw only white people on tv. My kids are definitely growing in a more accepting US culture, and it's wonderful!

zurin said...

What a lovely story and so well written too Ninette. I was imagining you as a little girl asking where the rice was!! and the mashed potatoes story was hilarious. Good thing they laughed.

Isnt it funny how when you try so hard to be nice you still blunder. I can't recall exact incidents but I do remember the feeling very well...of blundering. Perhaps its just my way of not wanting to remember for sharing such a wonderful story :))

Trissa said...

I loved this post Ninette - it was both funny and endearing - I could totally relate! In the end how you said we all come to the table with different expectations because of our culture is so true and what is so great is that when we keep an open mind we end up experiencing something really special. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story - while you said it was just about mashed potatoes - it wasn't! But I know you better than that!

Anonymous said...


徵信社 said...

I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.


carolyn t at said...

What a wonderful collection of embarrassing stories! I enjoyed reading all about it. Haven't we all had some similar experiences. You had me LOLing.

Cortney said...

Aw, I love your mashed potatoes and life story!
I was 19 years old when my house burnt down, so my mother and I moved in with my grandmother. That's when I discovered that potatoes au gratin and beef stroganoff didn't come from a box. My mom cooked occasionally, but for the most part I was a Betty Crocker kid ; )

Katrine Kirk said...

Hey, Ninette,
That was a lovely story, and like so many others have said, your writing is funny and moving. I totally identify with the little girl trying her best to be polite.

Thank you for sharing!
Katrine - in Denmark

Katrine Kirk said...

Hey Ninette,
Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story. Loved reading it, and totally identify with that little girl you were, trying her best to be polite. Oh, the embarrassment one must suffer after an innocent blunder!
Katrine - ind Denmark