I remember, as a child, eating dark, fragrant, and sweet rice cake so sticky it stuck to my teeth. I was three years old, and those rolls of black rice became my first delicious memories. Memories of standing past midnight during Christmas season in front of an old church, remnant of four hundred years of Spanish occupation. Salivating as I waited for those rolls to finish cooking.
What, you might ask, was a three-year-old doing out at midnight? Those long-ago days, in that obscure town of the Catholic country where I grew up, midnight mass was an essential ritual of Christmas season for old and young. It lasted nine midnights. For me, the ritual meant a treat after sitting half asleep, leaning on my grandmother, indifferent to words only a few probably fully understood. The mass, I learned later, was in Latin.
Outside the church, a line of vendors hawked midnight snacks. I would pull my grandmother’s hand towards the woman selling sticky black rice. I would cup my hands, thrust them toward her before she could coax those purplish black rice rolls out of steaming bamboo tubes sitting over glowing earthen braziers.
She would place the rolls on a leaf of banana square. With a generous pinch of grated fresh coconut and a sprinkle of sugar, she handed them to me with a smile . Nothing, but nothing, can ever duplicate the anticipation, nor the sensation of sinking my teeth, into one of those still hot rolls of black rice, their jasmine fragrance blending with the cool, nutty creaminess of fresh coconut. Rice and coconut both hinting at the herbal fragrance of the banana leaf.
Deep in those dark rolls of rice were secrets I still had to discover. Secrets revealed to me only after I left that town of magical memories to navigate a much wider world.
Memories of those native delicacies have stayed with me, become part of me. Maybe, because of them, I’ve explored food and eating in places I’ve traveled. Because of them, I’ve relished writing food and eating scenes in my fiction. Scenes that suggest little truths about characters, places, and events. Maybe, it’s inevitable that they would inspire my new novel, Sugar and Spice and All Those Lies.
I’ve known the mood changing, even transformative, effect of food (as in Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by Isak Dinesen). You might have experienced something like it in a memorable meal you’ve eaten. If not, I share mine with you through the story of Gina, For her and her mother, creating scrumptious dishes has meant life, but in different ways.
Cooking is Gina’s way out of the shackles of a hand-to-mouth existence. A ticket to a world of promise and privilege. For her mother, cooking is life not only because it keeps her family well nourished. It lets her escape the ordinary grinding realities of each day while she cooks and watches her family eat. Gina and her mother cling to an underlying passion to create something: Food that can make people feel good. That can give meaning to life.
Mom’s dinners have kept our family together. How can you take offense or be angry at people with whom you’ve just shared a great meal? Even as teenagers, when we preferred to hang out with friends, we ran home every evening for Mom’s dinners. We couldn’t always tell what she’d serve. But we knew it would be delicious.
What more can you ask for in something you consume about three times a day?
Sugar and Spice and All Those Lies will be published early next year.