How cooking helped me connect with my adoptive mother's heritage
I'm a food writer and avid home cook, and like many people, I credit my love of all things culinary to my mom. But for me, learning to cook from my mom was about more than just understanding how to slow-cook a roast beef and perfectly season a pot of soup (though she can do both flawlessly).
My mom and dad adopted my sister and me when I was in the second grade. We'd been in foster care with them since I was 2, and though it may sound unusual to others, to me the situation felt and feels completely normal — it's just what I grew up with.
One thing that did irk me? Even though my mom and I were as close as can be (the term "mini-me" may have been thrown around by those who knew us well), we didn't look alike. Most of the time this wasn't an issue, but sometimes a teacher or one of the ladies at church would mention how my sister and I had blond hair and blue eyes, unlike our brunet parents, or how I was getting so much taller than my petite mother.
My mom was really good at deflecting these statements, but it was a weird reminder that our situation, however pedestrian it felt to me, was different from the norm.
I didn't share my mom's brown hair and brown eyes because my birth parents, of Irish, Polish and English descent, had strawberry blond hair and blue eyes. My mom, on the other hand, was Portuguese and Armenian. But surprisingly, the thing that helped me get over our different visual appearance was sharing in my mom's cultural traditions, most of which happened in the kitchen when my grandma visited.
Of course, my love of cooking started long before I realized these discrepancies. My mom had me in the kitchen as a toddler, and I would play with bowls or "help" her stir various dishes as she worked. My mother is an awesome cook, and her talent and dedication to serving up home-cooked meals to my sister, father and me is only more impressive now that I realize she was cooking for four and working full-time, when some days I can barely deal with making a quick stir-fry for my husband and myself after a day of binge-watching Netflix.
Granted, there were frequent meals made of Hamburger Helper, tacos from a box and Shake 'n Bake, but interspersed were bowls of her flawless ham and bean soup, corn chowder and heavenly slow-cooked red sauce with sausages, chicken and meatballs (and a small pot of tortellini for just her and me to share, while my dad and little sister preferred plain pasta).
But no food was more definitive or essential to my development as a lover of cooking than my mom’s kale soup. Her recipe was a slight twist on my grandmother's kale soup, which was based on my great-grandmother’s kale soup. My great-grandmother came to the U.S. from Portugal and brought the recipe with her. I never met her, but thank goodness she passed along her kale soup recipe.
Whenever my grandma came from the mainland to visit us on Martha's Vineyard, the island where we lived, my mom’s preparations began the same way. First, clean the house from top to bottom, even though my grandma would do the same thing as soon as she got there (the woman loved to launder, what can I say?). Second, start soaking a bag or two of lima beans for kale soup. As they soaked, the skins would loosen, and by the time my grandma arrived, they would be ready for prep.
My mom and grandma would work together, slipping the transparent wet skins from the beans and dropping the smooth limas into their own bowl. My mom would often give my sister and me our own tiny bowl of beans to skin, and we’d sit there, sometimes in companionable silence or with the TV playing Judge Judy or some other daytime show, sometimes with my grandma telling off-color jokes that I’d laugh at even though I didn’t really understand (she was a total riot).
The sound of beans plunking into their bowls and the splat of the wet skins hitting and sticking to the side of another orchestrated our moves until finally the beans were finished. Then my mom would tip the peeled lima beans into her massive pot of kale soup, where, like magic, they would completely dissolve over an hour or two of simmering, adding their flavor and rich body to the broth.
When it was time to eat, we would get a bowl of soup and a hunk of dense-yet-fluffy, flour-coated Portuguese bread that my grandma would bring with her from New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she lived. My mom always said you couldn’t have kale soup without the bread and would tear hers into bits and set them in her bowl to soak up the broth. But for me, the best part was slurping the broth itself, rich from the lima beans and golden in color with a light sheen on top, tiny orange beads of oil from the hunks of spicy chouriço floating under the surface of the soup like hidden gems.
When I’m homesick or sad or feeling under the weather, my immediate and initial craving is for a bowl of my mom’s kale soup. Last time I went home for Christmas, my mom had even made me a separate pot of vegan kale soup now that I eat a plant-based diet. It’s so much more than just a food to me; it’s an edible document of our family’s history, a distillation of those childhood days surrounded by two of the most important women in my life, spent creating something wonderful together.
A lot of people can fall back on their family’s traditions because such things are “in your blood.” But my mom's traditions are a part of me because she always made sure that when my grandma visited, I would be in the kitchen with them to make the kale soup. Whether or not she realized it, nothing could have made me feel more like I really belonged and that her history was my history too.