Over a decade ago, when I met my husband — then an awkward 20-year-old from New Orleans to my brash 18-year-old self from California — our foreignness to one another was perhaps most evident in our palates. Though we were both Americans, our upbringings meant that I, the first child of immigrant Taiwanese parents, experienced the food of our country through the lens of fast food pizza, spaghetti with Prego sauce (always Prego sauce, never any other brand), Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, and the occasional bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, while Chris ate his fair share of gumbo, po boys, and jambalaya. Before I met him, I had heard of none of these foods. Growing up at home meant that I ate my mother’s meals of steamed fish with ginger and soy sauce, of rice wine chicken soup and sautéed morning glory greens with garlic. She used oil with a light hand. Instead of having sweets for dessert, we ate fruit, and ice cream was a delicacy to be saved for birthdays.
When we arrived at university, though two years apart, both Chris and I were thrust into making cultural adjustments. The dining halls, in attempting to appeal to students from all states and all countries, featured things that I found bewildering, such as beef stroganoff, and even a form of what they called gumbo that was not so much gumbo as it was a dark, stewy concoction with spices. Chris and I began seeing one another — dating is not the word for it; we did not go on “dates” so much as we just hung around one another for epic stretches — in the first week of my freshman year.
And we discovered, across his Southern background and my Taiwanese one, that we both liked sardines. There was much we couldn’t stomach, but canned sardines, a food that is reviled by most folks, was something he and I had in common. (Not politics, though. He was, back then, a registered Republican, and I was a post-punk feminist.)
So we decided to settle in the middle of my common room floor, by the television with a VHS of Say Anything whirring, and ate cheap, canned sardines on common saltine crackers. Any one of my roommates who happened to wander through took no time in expressing her disgust. But we were happy. Now Chris and I tend to refer to those younger versions of ourselves as “little weirdos,” because… we were. Awkward, funny, and in my case, wracked with the initial onset of bipolar disorder, we were strange, and not at home in those borrowed meat suits of ours.
But we liked one another. 9/11 had just happened. The President hadn’t declared war yet. We liked one another, and we did not know how tumultuous life would become for either of us, or for our lives together, but we knew that we felt the tickle of fondness at our sternums, and we knew the pleasure of a simple meal.
Do you have any minor food combinations that trigger memory?