The Problem with Food and Authenticity, Part Two: Your Mom

By Chantal Braganza

Part Two: Your Mom

There is a blog post by Lea Zeltserman I keep returning to when I think about this. She was reacting to a New York Times review of a hip, nostalgic and probably quite nice Brooklyn deli called Mile End. The kind of place that makes noodles for its kasha varnishkes by hand, because that’s the way the owner’s great-grandmother made it, and was therefore the right way. Neither would ever buy their bow tie-shaped pasta at a store.

“No, she didn’t,” writes Zeltzerman, “and neither did my Russian great-grandmother. Clearly. But they weren’t trying to pass on a sense of authenticity out of the goodness of their hearts. Our grandmothers didn’t buy noodles at the store because they couldn’t. There were no store noodles to be had, and if there had been, they wouldn’t have had the money. What they got to do was spend an entire day in the kitchen making handmade noodles. Now, those same constricts of poverty have become laden with moral implications.”

Those moral implications probably merit a post of their own, but I will try to be brief. When we talk about the cooking of immigrant mothers, grand-mothers, great-grands and such, we’re honouring tradition and keeping cuisines alive and yes, that’s great. Opening up a restaurant that pays tribute to the way your grandmother cooks is a lovely sentiment.

But so often overlooked are the constraints that historically drove the way we cooked in so many parts of the world; how poverty got us to use what we had in the best possible way, and how when I say “us” I mostly mean women. What’s interesting is that those same constrictions of access and availability that produced the kind of cooking we lovingly look back on—the breads, the hand-made noodles, the soups made of pig parts boiled down for six hours—manifest themselves in almost opposite ways now. Those store-bought noodles? Cheaper and faster than making them by hand. And you can forget about that pig soup (or in Mexico, pozole) if you’re working a full-time job.

As wonderful a cook she is now, my mom came here in the early eighties knowing only how to make steak and fries. She and my dad, she says, were plumper as newlyweds, and it took her years to learn how to cook like my grandmother.

There’s only two things in my mom’s Mexican repertoire that she makes in the strictest sense authentically. She makes them exceptionally well. The first is sopa de fideo, a kind of chicken noodle soup that’s little more than chicken fat, garlic, tomatoes and lime. The second is tortillas, a two-ingredient staple I’d challenge anyone to make as puffy and sweet as she does. (But please, don’t ever tell her I said that.)

If you ask me, my mom’s a hell of a lot better with things like bhindi masala and butter chicken. It’s just what she likes to make.