In this Food-Stuff piece, Emely Vargas writes a letter to her mom
Let me tell you why my brother David, a man growing up in our Hispanic family that frequently practices stereotypical gender roles, would voluntarily take the chance of burning rice, undercooking chicken, and hearing all the criticism that comes with using a pan. You have your own little house within our house: the kitchen. You bake so much that David and I can identify the exact tones for every speed level of the KitchenAid mixer. You’re in the kitchen so much, we can direct anyone around our nearest Jetro, the wholesale food supplier that populates our refrigerator with butter and eggs every few weeks. And, on top of that, you have been selling cakes and flan and so much more as a small source of income to help pay for our education. Thank you, Mami.
You are an exceptional cook. I’d probably be filthy rich if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I know how to cook like you. David, on the other hand, would be broke. Our family not only expects me to be the next cook, but to be a great one just like you. But I tend to be that drop of oil in a family made of water. As you very well know, I don’t cook well. I don’t cook at all.
David, however, does.
Just like many food lovers in my generation, the Food Network first sparked David’s interest in food. There were so many chefs tossing this and turning that—he was bound to be interested at some point if he watched enough. And he did. He watched just about anything, from Alton Brown’s “scientific” cooking to Guy Fieri devouring messy meals on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. David always seemed particularly interested in the uniquely intense cooking of Emeril Lagasse, whose “Bam!” I distinctly remember you loathing.
The Food Network was never really his teacher, though. Most of what he watched TV chefs prepare seemed unrealistic for him to make. Most of the chefs were white and worked in either charming or unrealistically shiny kitchens that looked nothing like the kitchen we saw you cooking in. They had pantries full of countless spices, when all we really knew was Adobo, the staple Hispanic seasoning you used. And where was David supposed to get so much fresh produce from anyways? Certainly not in Corona, Queens, a neighborhood flooded with the greasy fries and frozen patties of fast-food restaurants.
The thing is: the Food Network that David watched doesn’t really teach anyone. But Emeril Lagasse “kicking it up a notch” might have been what made David try experimenting with recipes. He was watching a man cook—something he had never seen in our house—and on top of that, that man was cooking foods David had never even heard of. What if he had been watching Julia Child, America’s most famous celebrity chef teacher, instead? Would he have been drawn to cooking? I honestly don’t know, but I believe that if he had watched Julia, he would have been more inspired by Child’s philosophy, described by Michael Pollan as “less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right.”
Instead, the inaccessible meals of the Food Network piqued David’s culinary interest; but they ultimately turned him toward what he saw cooked at home, the only food either of us really knew—Dominican food.
Our Dominican cuisine was one of the few things that kept us, born and raised in New York, of and by immigrant parents, connected to our culture. What says, “I’m Dominican” more than a few tostones or a plate of arroz con habichuela y pollo guisado? David isn’t a huge lover of all the sauces and spices traditionally used in our food that you frequently prepare though, so he is constantly experimenting further. Instead of filling a pastelito with our staple cheese, he fills it with Nutella or pomegranate, or both. You and dad may not love this movement away from tradition, but you accept that David is just trying to understand his position as a Dominican, an American, and a man.
Sometimes though, I admit that David goes a little overboard. Do you remember that one Thanksgiving dinner when he forced the entire family to eat his mashed potatoes, green beans, and turkey? It wasn’t cooked poorly—it was actually pretty good—but no one in the family wanted to eat such a “white” meal on such a special day. They wanted pernil (roast pork), moro (a version of rice and beans), and the many different colorful salads you make, like the pink potato salad that gets its color from beets. I can remember my uncle expressing his opinion about David’s turkey at the center of the table: “You think you’re fancy now, huh?”
In David’s defense, he’s never actually been taught how to cook—not even by you. If he takes too long peeling a plantain, you’ll say, “You’ve seen me do this a thousand times,” but you still won’t teach him how to do it. Me, however, you’ll pull out of bed to show how to make your famous goat recipe, convincing yourself that I care about a stinky goat. You may be an old-school Dominican who practices these stereotypes, but I know you’re not ignorant. You understand that these gender roles aren’t necessarily constructive or beneficial. Even though you know David might benefit more from being taught how to make that goat because he likes to cook, you are still inherently more inclined to teach me because I am your daughter.
David is very well aware that gendered pressures to cook still exist, although he doesn’t experience any of it. Many of my family members simply think, “That it is what it is, so why fight it?” But this isn’t how David thinks. Not anymore. And so to Bowdoin College—David’s alma mater and an institution recognized for its liberal ideals—I owe many thank yous. Thank you for teaching David that these gender roles shouldn’t be accepted. Thank you for teaching David that it is OK to be a man who enjoys cooking. Thank you for teaching David that making food—even bad food—takes time and effort.
Eating at Bowdoin also opened David’s taste buds beyond Dominican food. He doesn’t just eat more vegetables; he has almost turned into a vegetarian—an absurdity in our culture. His food views are influenced by more than just Dominican culture. David’s “culinary point of view,” to borrow the language of Food Network Star, is healthy and vegetarian. He wants to push against the idea that to eat well you must eat meat. It seems that making things like buffalo chickpeas instead of buffalo chicken—which, I’ll take his word for, taste good—can really change a man. Many of the men in our family probably wouldn’t view this love for veggies as a positive effect. David’s been teased for sitting with a plate of rice and salad when there were plenty of meat options for us omnivores to devour. If he were ever to truly convert to vegetarianism, he would never hear the end of it. And let’s not even try thinking about the judgment he would receive if he chose to go vegan. In our family, meat makes the man.
In order to understand David’s relationship with food, he and I have both had to think through the implications of being a man in the kitchen. The truth is, he didn’t learn how to cook to impress others or even to feed himself. He learned to cook to understand the pressure I was growing up with. To understand why you, and your mother, and many other women in our family work tirelessly in the kitchen. To understand why our women in society are so obviously expected to forever do something that men are praised for just attempting.
Our dad can’t cook. He has set off countless fire alarms just trying to warm up the leftovers you leave him.
But on any given day, you walk into our room to show us a bouquet of flowers you’ve made out of fondant or a dessert you’ve invented from scratch, and your face glows as you showcase your work because it clearly shows your passion. We may not say it very often, but your skills amaze us: your children and your husband.
As your daughter, I’m told I should gain those skills; I should learn how to bake a cake like you and cook that goat, and do so much more of what you do perfectly. “You better learn,” so many family members say to me, “because who else is going to do it when she’s gone?” Everyone seems to forget that David too is your child, equally capable and more willing than I am to learn how to bake a damn cake. But I am your daughter.
Emely Vargas was born and raised in Queens, New York but consistently stays in touch with her Dominican roots through language, dance, and food. Largely as a result of her background, she is currently concentrating in Urban Studies as a junior at Brown University. Her exposure to countless cultures and their foods in the City, as well as her immigrant mother’s passion for traditional Dominican cuisine and experimentation in the kitchen, has continuously inspired her interest in food studies.