Siblings b, c and I couldn’t be more different (pictured here with cousin Renae on the right). At least it seems so to us. While the outside world may see three self-reliant, factually careless critics, we see a decisive impatient, a gregarious persistent, and an unsure complacent. But we do have one or two areas of commonality beyond that pesky “why wouldn’t everyone want to know our opinion?” thing. Even after living apart for over 30 years, I can guarantee there’s a pantry in Jacksonville, one in Portland and another in Minneapolis that are genetically linked.
I can probably guess the foodstuffs I’ll find in my siblings’ kitchens with 90% accuracy. And we’re not talking eggs and milk, or even balsamic and soy. All families probably have this: a common peanut butter brand, an inexplicable fondness for Grape Nuts, galangal in the spice cabinet…. For us, it’s capers and Korean black bean paste (kochujung). Red pepper paste and pickled peppers. Smoked oysters, sardines, chutney. A pound of herbes de Provence, a gallon of sesame oil. The peppers may be of a slightly different bent —one woman’s sambal olek is another’s sriracha— but there they are in various pasted and pickled forms.
Our spouses have managed to influence us slightly, so while b’s fridge may sport South African salted mango, mine holds sauerkraut, and c’s has three shelves (at least) dedicated to the pickled accoutrement necessary for getting one’s self pickled.
It’s not just the condiments. Years ago at a family gathering I was handed some tomatoes and told to make a salad. At first bite, my brother’s girlfriend’s eyes grew wide. “Oh my god it tastes exactly like his!” Who knew? Apparently the taste memory of tangy/sweet, oily/salty, oniony/tomatoey lies deeply embedded. And perhaps we hold the same conviction that the point of a tomato salad is to saturate great hunks of bread with the remaining juice, and for that, the proportions have to be just so.
And though we grew up with mayo on top of the dressed tomatoes, we’ve each independently discontinued that practice (except for once in awhile). Similarly, when I shared with sis that I was making our family’s bastardized version of curry for j’s birthday (a lamb concoction topped with fruits, nuts, sweet and savory treats), she laughed and said she’d just made the same dish to use up leftover Easter lamb. Only, she confided, nowadays she adds coconut milk. Scary. Years ago I’d modified mine exactly the same. (Note to self: because the coconut milk mellows out the flavors, kick up the heat quotient. Made intentionally mild for the birthday girl, there’s got to be enough heat to give the apples, oranges, bananas, raita and raisins a raison. d’etre, that is.)
Today, gray salt, dijon mustard, truffle oil and wasabi are ubiquitous, so our genetically related pantries are less unusual than back in 1985. But there’s still some comfort in knowing that if we serve feta, it will be sliced, sprinkled with herbes de provence and black pepper, and drizzled with olive oil. That if you’re asked to cook dinner at someone else’s house, you’ll not only find toasted sesame seeds, anchovies and lap cheong, but you’ll find the “right” kind of mustard and plain red wine vinegar for the “right” vinaigrette.
Opinionated? Who, us?