1. Making Dumplings (Ching-In)
We began our relationship by eating together.
Cassie courted me by offering to pick up extra goat milk from the raw milk farm. I made avocado and berry smoothies out of the produce I received as part of a year-round produce-buying cooperative my housing co-op participated in. She surprised me with homemade pie. Eventually, we were making lettuce wraps and vegetable stir-fry together a few times a week.
Call it a test, call it pack-rat fear, call it immigrant stone-soup mentality.
Sharing food was one of the primary ways my close-knit Chinese-American immigrant family showed love and care for each other. We eat family style when together — all the dishes in the middle of the table and everyone dipping into each dish. This practice carried over the few times we ate out at restaurants. Every time a dish arrived, we cut off small pieces for everyone else and circulated the dish around the table.
In elementary school, when other kids began calling me “Chicken Wings” and “Chopsticks,” I realized my family ate differently than most. The lunch my mom prepared became a source of shame, marker of my ethnic, cultural and racial difference. I wanted what everyone else seemed to have, food my family didn’t usually eat: macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and meatloaf.
When a Ph. D program prompted my move from California to Milwaukee — land of macaroni and cheese, burgers and beer — it felt like moving to the land of my childhood fears and desires. In a city with such a small Chinese-American community, I had a hard time finding comfort food such as thousand-year egg and pork congee, a rice porridge I like to eat when I’m sick. Once — in feverish desperation — I drove to the nearest Chinese restaurant and asked for congee even though it wasn’t on the menu. The man at the counter replied that they made it daily for the workers, but were sold out.
That frantic day, I came home and described my predicament to my Korean-American housemate, who promptly whipped me up her own version of the dish. Though it wasn’t exactly the same as what I was used to, it comforted me and was a lesson in how to begin to make my own sort of community in Milwaukee.
Growing up, I loved eating dumplings because my family made them together; my mother directing operations and preparing shrimp, pork, tofu, egg and spinach filling; my brother and me helping her wrap; and my father in charge of the boiling station at the stove.
Each year, around my birthday and lunar New Year, I host a dumpling-making party to celebrate the passing of time and my close circle of community and chosen family. In Milwaukee, it felt important to continue this tradition because I was so far from my immediate family.
As I learned more about my new city, I enjoyed learning about the Milwaukee’s distinct food culture, visiting neighborhood farmers’ markets and talking with the Hmong merchants about their greens. I heard about Will Allen’s Growing Power, a nationally recognized urban farm, went for a visit and was impressed with the aquaponic fish, the large variety of microgreens, and the organization’s social mission.
When I moved in with Cassie this past summer, we decided it made sense (financially, healthwise and politically) to pool our resources to invest in receiving a Community Supported Agriculture half-share from Old Plank Farm, a small farm which had been operating for about five years just outside of Milwaukee. It was a first for me to participate in Community Supported Agriculture as a household, eating with the seasons and cooking Wisconsin favorites such as kolhrabi, beets and squash.
Moving in with Cassie created other firsts for me. It had been 15 years since I had been in a romantic relationship with a white person and the first time I was able to honestly communicate about how that affected my presence in our relationship. It was the first time I had ever been in a committed relationship with a trans-woman and parent of 4- and 7-year-old sons. Many of the cultural negotiations in our relationship were reflected in how we made and shared food with each other and her children.
2. The Baggage of Cabbage (Cassie)
I was raised in the rural village of Rochester, Wisconsin as the second son to a father whose business supported small-farm agriculture. When my father was present for dinner, we ate together. I was not allowed to speak unless spoken to and frequently criticized for being scrawny. As a child, I wasn’t able to respond to the criticism. I sat for hours refusing to eat my plate of bland, overcooked veggies.
When the corporate farm-consolidation trend of the 80s and 90s took my father’s previously successful business into the red, he blamed my mother, brother and I for failing to support his business. My father wanted us to spend all of our energy, and we did, but I was never able to stack bales fast enough or throw them far enough.
I had no desire to bulk up to be a stronger son. He took on a second job and, with my father’s increasing absence from home, we ate together less and less. I was able to get away with skipping meals and also found a sick glory in watching my body wither. By staying thin, I distanced myself from my father’s expectations of masculinity and increased how often I was identified as a woman by strangers.
After I left home, I pushed the envelope further and further; altering my hair, wearing a stuffed bra under my clothing, and fitting into smaller and smaller clothes. Zipping into size two designer jeans made me feel purposefully unmasculine and svelte. On visits home, my parents stared at me strangely, yet said nothing.
One day my mother asked me to step on a scale. I had not weighed myself in about four years. At high school graduation I weighted 135lbs. The scale now read 107.
Having my mother ask me to stand on a scale made me feel cared for and I pledged to live healthier. My recovery from an eating disorder was bundled with a longing for normalcy, so I attempted to act in ways I thought my parents would approve of. What I understood as a healthy lifestyle was weight-gain, marriage, and children. Over the next seven years I slowly went back into the closet, married a past fling and had two children.
Moving towards a healthy weight was slow and arduous. I had periods of time where the anxiety surrounding my gender identity would crush my appetite. I made several attempts during this time to include veggies in meal planning, but each time, my bowels would shout in disagreement. After several bouts of intense abdominal pain and gaseous bloating, missing several days of work, I went on an elimination diet and learned I was sensitive to cruciferous vegetables.
Coming out as transgender while simultaneously managing a divorce, I found myself placating my children with pizza and macaroni and cheese. When I did not want to eat what they ate, I created a separate meal. However, overwhelming guilt often left me exhausted and with no appetite, so it was not long before I was skipping meals again.
Three months after I started living as a single parent, I met Ching-In who invited me to thier dumpling party. In the following weeks, we spent time getting to know one another by cooking together. At first, Ching-In made food for me while I watched. Gradually, I helped prepare parts of the meal and we cooked together. I learned that I could make a stir-fry with whatever vegetables were available and season to taste. As Ching-In’s school workload increased, I took over cooking and tried my best to create the same kinds of meals.
With Ching-In, I’d begun to eat regularly. I wanted to get my children involved in our cooking, so they would feel included in my new relationship, but getting them on board was a challenge. New meals were met with disdain, so I often continued to make food they were familiar with just so they would eat.
3. Using It All (Ching-In & Cassie)
This is how it begins: a request for pizza, hot dogs, or macaroni and cheese. When Duncan (7) and Connor (4) are told we are having stir-fry for dinner, they beg and moan and do not stop until threatened with early bedtime. At dinner, they are reminded to eat a thank you helping to respect the person who made the meal; the hope is that they might discover they actually like what they are eating and eat more of it, but this hasn’t happened tonight. They do not want what’s on the menu. The question is whether or not to make them an alternative so that they will eat something.
This situation was common. After our household merger, the children were frequently being introduced to new food, demanding alternatives, and complaining when they didn’t get their way.
Things got easier when we began to involve the boys in meal preparation. When our CSA farm had an open house, we took them along. They were introduced to (and even chased by) the Old Plank Farm chickens and saw where they lived. Our farmer, Stephanie, showed us rows of squash, melons and tomatoes and gave us a cantaloupe, Connor’s favorite fruit, to take home.
We always took the boys to pick up our CSA box. When we unpacked the veggies, Cassie asked them what the vegetables could be used for and to taste the raw veggies they weren’t familiar with. The breakthrough came when Cassie held a bag of pea-shoots up to Duncan’s face and said, “you like peas, yes? See these green stems? They are baby pea plant stems and taste just like peas. Try one.”
Duncan chuckled at the idea of eating baby pea plants whole and replied, “Do you think I could sauté these in butter for dinner?” Floored at this new development, Cassie agreed. At seven years old, Duncan was ready to learn how to cook.
Duncan’s interest in helping make dinner opened his mouth and mind to new flavors and has tripled the number of veggies he likes. With his older brother on board, Connor also wants to help and dinnertime has become much more collaborative.
Today, a typical meal-time with the kids might look like this: at the kitchen table, Ching-In cuts chard, spinach, carrots, beets and onions for stir-fry. We ask Connor to help put the trimmings (carrot and beet tops, onion peels) into a freezer bag so we can make soup stock later. Cassie cuts squash in half to put in the oven and separate the seeds for baking. We place the vegetables in the wok as Duncan stirs. As the food cooks, Connor sets the table with a mix of chopsticks and forks.
4. The Beginning of a Long Conversation
When Ching-In’s mom flew into Milwaukee for a visit, we were nervous. The first night that we all had dinner together, Cassie made a baked chicken with vegetables dish that has been typically a sure bet in our household. The first hitch came when Cassie forgot that Ching-In’s mom doesn’t eat anything with alcohol in it. Because Cassie normally cooks the chicken with wine, she had included it without thinking. This was solved by serving her chicken that hadn’t yet touched the wine sauce, with a simple stir-fry.
During the meal, a few of the questions the boys had for Ching-In’s mom were not so easily addressed. While Ching-In was out of the room, Duncan asked, “Have you ever used a fork before?” Connor asked, “Why does your face look like that?” Cassie was very embarrassed and told them these questions were rude. When we debriefed what happened that night, Cassie admitted she was taken off guard and her response had been inadequate. We agreed that there was a lot of work to do within our family.
The next day, at the Hmong market, we ordered stuffed chicken wings, Hmong sausage, duck, pho and spring rolls. Duncan immediately said he couldn’t eat any of it and wanted to go elsewhere. Ching-In’s mom said she’d share her plate with him and got him to try a few of the dishes, pointing out that she had also never eaten Hmong food. Duncan again asked about forks, this time whether or not there were any at this “Chinese” place. In response, we asked Duncan about his assumptions and clarified that not everyone in the market was Chinese.
This is just one example of the ever-shifting conversations that have surfaced around privilege and cultural difference, since our chosen family began to prepare and share meals together. In these moments, how we show up and are present for each other means looking at the entire landscape of our family dynamics, including all the baggage(s) we bring to the table and in relation to each other, whether surrounding gender identity, body image issues, family norms around mealtimes, and racial and ethnic identity. This is part of the sharing and celebrating what we bring to each other. We are continually learning to be there for each other, even when it is uncomfortable. Food is just the beginning of a long conversation.