I still remember the look on my friend’s face when my mom pulled out the coppa, or Italian head cheese, a cold-cut made from a boiled pig head that’s picked apart and reconstituted back together (with no actual cheese involved).
Eying the pinks and whites of the assembled meat parts with both fear and curiosity—though never curious enough to actually taste it—my friend hissed, “I thought you said your mom makes Italian food?” with his face scrunched up in disgust.
I was a kid, about 10-years-old, and as kids are wont to do, I mimicked him, lifting my nose and pursing my lips, telling my mother the same thing he did: It was gross. I found myself genuinely angered with her. Why couldn’t she just make something normal, something that people from our very small, very mountain town could relate to? Why couldn’t she just make lasagna?
My mom never pulled out head cheese again until I was 22, over a decade after this incident because, unbeknownst to me, I embarrassed her. I made her feel ashamed by spending money she didn’t have on a cold-cut she knew I loved and yet refused to eat, not attempting at all at the time to explain the dish to my friend and encourage him to try. And to this day, I don’t even know how she got the coppa given no one sold it in my mountain town.
The incident deeply affected me and as I’ve learned about the culinary riches that spans the diversity of human cultures, indeed as food became part of my job description, I’ve come to understand the constant struggle faced by people of different cultures who must constantly court the rather fragile American palate. Like the moment my Korean friend had to “warn” me of the smell of kimchi and the fish tank in her father’s garage in Irvine; the moment my Ethiopian friend asked me to “not be offended” by having to eat with my hands while a giant, aromatic pile of doro wot atop injara was presented to us by his mother.
And it was much like the Cambodian wedding I recently experienced in Long Beach.
I went to my first Cambodian wedding this past weekend. When I arrived, the first thing my inner fat kid wanted to do was look at the menu. I leaned over to My Dude, pointing out the sea cucumber and abalone salad—”Yes!” I exclaimed—along with other absurdly scrumptious-looking dishes such as Peking duck, a mashed taro dessert…
The menu made me grateful to not only be there but to be there and not be known. I was sat at a table where everyone was new, where I could learn new stories rather than hearing questions about my food reviews or social media life thrown back at me. A young, American woman asked me, “Is this your first Cambodian wedding?” I said yes, and she said the food can be “different,” drawing out the first syllable as if to emphasize there was some high probability I would be served something I didn’t like.
My eyebrow lifted and head cocked as a giant platter of Peking duck arrived and, before I could feel too perplexed to ask her why it was so “different,” I was soon mowing through the pile of bird.
“You like that?” she quipped.
I was completely taken aback. I mean, I get being thrown off by sea cucumber but duck? Each table had a full duck—this could not have been an easy expense for the family given there were 38 tables—a full, golden, perfectly caramelized bird that was succulent, sweet, and dripping with hints of maltose and plum, served with steam buns and Hoisin sauce.
“Where’s the chicken and steak?” she asked, laughing while taking a shot of cognac.
Then, a young Cambodian man who would disappear and re-appear at the table constantly finally paused long enough to ask me if this was my first Cambodian wedding. I smiled brightly, nudged My Dude, and said that it was indeed our first one.
“Do you… Are you … Well, like, are you guys adventurous with food?” he inquired.
Attempting not to be offensive, he was courting what would have been a typical transaction with a barang dude at a Cambodian wedding. A wedding which included course after course of Asian dishes that, well, appealed to the American palate mostly through its fried rice and little else. I immediately read him, transported back to that day in my mom’s kitchen with the coppa, and happily grinned: “Don’t worry: I don’t think mayo is spicy. I love food.”
He laughed, heartily. So did his girlfriend. And together, they began talking. About their food. About their weddings and the food at their weddings. About their homes and the food at their homes. They were excited, bright, if not outright honored. They were friends-of-friends-of-friends, not really knowing the wedding party, but there to honor it anyways, a tradition amongst Khmer weddings where the reception is intended to be as large as possible.
Without them knowing remotely I write about food or were connected to the family at hand—and therefore had experienced at many a backyards and parks the awesomeness of fish sauce, sea cucumber, mung bean desserts, durian, and other delectables—I continued to let them do the talking about their food and their love of it.
Because it was beautiful.
It was a way for them to connect with their own history, a history that includes the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot and the murder of millions of their countrymen, estimates ranging into more than 2.4 million. In this sense, Cambodian food and celebrations are more than just events; they’re an inherent part of a culture that was created from massive loss. Every time a Cambodian greets you in America, offers you a plate of food, invites you to a wedding, it is a beautiful display of culinary art and cultural resilience. Their presence, especially here in Long Beach, is a miracle birthed out of humanity’s worst aspects—and their food is a reflection of that miracle.
Connect with someone you don’t relate to by connecting to what we can all relate to: Food. Eat up, America.
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