It didn't used to be cool to be an American who was too ethnic, who continued cooking the food and speaking the language of "the old country." Now it seems everyone is writing articles and stories about the food traditions of their immigrant parents and grandparents, making all of us wish we had such a heritage. My foodie friends smack their lips when they talk about exotic meals only grandma could make. Alas, like many Americans, I am a mutt. My immigrant grandmas came from different parts of the world and their families had to focus more on survival than on cooking.
My Mexican-American grandma's house always enveloped me in the aroma of simmering beans and warm tortillas--the Mexican peasant's meal. My German-American grandmother lived with with us and rhapsodized about "braunschweiger "[smoked liverwurst] on rye, the German-American working-class's favorite lunch box filler.
Mexican Granny grew up on a little ranch in Sonora where food was plain but plentiful-- when the various bands of thugs didn't plunder it during the constant political upheaval in early-20th Century Mexico. (When Pancho Villa's name was mentioned, she spat, "He was not a hero! He was a teef!") Her family hid the girls and the food in secret cellars during the raids, covering the trap doors with rugs and old women in rocking chairs.
German Grandma grew up in Pittsburgh; her father died when she was nine. Food was scarce and she quit school at 13 to work and help support the family. She had sharp memories of going to bed hungry, which prompted her to give my sisters and me ice cream with cocoa powder almost every night as a bedtime snack. Her love of cream came from skimming the cream off the top of the milk in the "spring house" in the not-so-hungry days before her dad died. We heartily embraced her cream tradition, but liverwurst was a harder sell. She never quite got us to love that pinkish brown tube of meat paste the way working-class German-American kids did at the turn of the 20th century.
My foodie friends build family cookbooks full of inherited Italian, Yiddish, and Asian recipes. I have an important job to do for them--I am the gourmand who consumes their creations with gusto and exclamations of appreciation--and I'm good at it!
The flavors of my childhood--tortillas with beans and Jack Cheese, ice cream with cocoa powder--don't tax my minimal cooking abilities. It's a good thing; I can whip them up for my friends any time without searching for exotic ingredients or sweating for hours in the kitchen. Then the payoff: they reciprocate, sending my palate on amazing international journeys as they share the flavors of their childhoods.
I've often heard America called a "melting pot." Maybe this is what we're talking about!