For the past five years, I have lived 300 miles away from my parents. I set off to the big city of Chicago, as young people filled with wanderlust so often do, and my parents stayed behind in our hometown of Dayton, Ohio (world-renowned as the birthplace of Boring). Due to the aforementioned distance and scheduling conflicts, it becomes something of an event when the five Posners are all in the same place at the same time. This past weekend, I was treated to a weird and wonderful weekend in Chicago with the family, and I was left with the reinforced notion that each family has its own traditions, history and vocabulary which govern their behavior. It's as if each of us has a dusty family book filled with ancient rituals and spells. Some of these rituals are now archaic or obsolete, but we have a living record of all of them just the same. In my family, this is especially true as it pertains to food.
I started cooking with my father around the age of ten (the age in which it is generally agreed that I started to form actual opinions about things that differed from those of my parents), and was introduced to the mantra that would permeate my later adult life in so many ways: "No soap in the cast iron wok." It was a simple instruction from my father (though, one that my mother could never seem to grasp), and though I now know that washing a seasoned piece of cast iron with harsh soaps or detergents will remove the seasoning and cause food to stick where it shouldn't, it didn't really matter why. It was the product of my father's (seemingly) infinite years of experience, and it was gospel.
Of course, it's become clear to me now that adults are making it up as they go along about 95% of the time, and nobody really has any idea what's going on, but when I was a kid, my father's word had weight and authority. Now that I am (at least technically) an adult, my dad's lessons become my lessons, and I realize that I am just as fussy about soap in the wok as he was. After all, if we didn't have these rules, the earth would literally break from orbit and crash into the sun. Right? This was, at least, my understanding of things.
When I go home to visit my parents, my dad and I almost always undertake some sort of complicated cooking project, from Beef Wellington to Clam Chowder, and the traditions manifest themselves in interesting ways. Since I am an American who wants everything LITERALLY RIGHT NOW, it would never occur to me to eat dinner at 10pm, as people in Spain apparently do.
However, when my dad and I cook together, it seems to take three times as long as it would have otherwise. It gets to the point where the non-cooking folks in the other room start to toss around the idea of ordering a pizza. Some people might be quick to blame the two or three empty bottles of wine for the hours-long dinner ordeal, but I prefer to think that we are in love with the act of cooking itself; the moment when the food is served is almost anticlimactic to us.
The true focus, the reason we do this, is the cooperation and teamwork. My dad and I have a kitchen shorthand that is essentially gibberish to the average onlooker. It's a weird, slightly sadistic tradition to make the non-cooking family members wait as long as possible for dinner, but it's our tradition. If we finished dinner in a timely fashion, it wouldn't be right. It would seem to violate the very laws of nature, like a fish flopping around on dry land. This is all part of the unique tradition and history of my family, and I aim to continue it with my children, or at least my adorable dogs.
What are some of your family traditions in the kitchen? Share them here.
And for more information on cast iron woks, stay tuned for next month's blog: "Natural Adhesives of the Amazon Basin."