When You Love Your Parents But Not Their Food

By Reem Tara Totonchi

Meat gives her the heebies. Fair ’nuff.

We eat with love at The Mash-Up Americans. In our mash-up families — all families? — food is love. When kids speak a different language than parents, when East Asian norms clash with South Asian ones, sometimes food is the only common ground, and the only bridge between cultures. Who doesn’t like a big beautiful meal? But what if it’s not common ground? What if the food from one of your parents’ cultures actually makes you gag? Our dear Iraqi-Irish Mash-Up Reem Tara Totonchi shared with us what it means to reject a food, yet love your family.

It was never my intention to reject any part of my ethnicity or culture. When I was a kid, however, I flat out refused to eat Middle Eastern food. I dreaded meals at certain relatives’ houses because I knew I’d find platters piled high with lamb, vegetables stuffed with meat and spices, and plates of olives that smelled funny. I wouldn’t even eat plain white rice.

I learned over time that not only was I shunning delicious food in general, but that I was missing out on food made by my mother, who has a great talent for cooking Iraqi food. I find this pretty wonderful considering she is 100 percent Irish. Soon after meeting my Iraqi father, my mother became quite accomplished at cooking Middle Eastern food. She learned to cook from an incredible cookbook and an even more incredible mother-in-law. She won over my father’s parents by preparing for them traditional, complicated Iraqi dishes. As it is in many cultures, the way to my grandparents’ hearts was through food. And they fell in love with her. My mom is such an amazing cook that she recently came in second place in a dolma making competition at an Arabic church picnic. And to top it all off, she makes a mean Irish stew. She’s the whole package.

Still, as a child, I could not appreciate that fact enough to eat the food. My father and sister devoured the dishes she placed in front of them while I wrinkled my nose and begged for fish sticks. As I grew up a bit, I stopped my foolishness and came around to eating most of the food.

However, I never did learn to cook like my mother.

However, I never did learn to cook like my mother. I love to cook, but I have a giant roadblock when it comes to cooking: I cannot touch raw meat. Even the sight of raw chicken makes me gag, and the idea of preparing lamb shoulders makes me shudder. I did vow a few years ago to try to cook meat once a year, just to keep myself challenged. This year I cooked bacon twice. The year before that, I believe I made a meatball. Baby steps.

Various aunties and random relatives furrow their eyebrows at me, concerned, when I let it slip I don’t cook meat at home. “What will your boyfriend eat?!” they exclaim. “He will go hungry! We will send home leftovers for him.” They shake their heads as they fill plastic containers with food for him, and I laugh to myself knowing well that he will eat and appreciate anything I put in front of him.

I do feel a pang, though, once in awhile. There’s a part of me that wishes I could just get over it and cook the ground beef needed to make kabob bedinjan or shepherd’s pie. But gagging while cooking does not exactly sound enjoyable. For now, I plan to keep perfecting my homemade protein bars and dry-fry tofu technique, and to continue to be motivated by my mother’s legacy of cooking while hopefully forging my own. And I will do that while being fully inspired by and grateful for both lovely sides of my family and culture.

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