Olivia Dawson, 129 YinD
When my grandmother was alive she would tell a story about my eating habits that seemed to define me as a person. At the crux of it was me, at six or seven, refusing to eat certain bites of microwave macaroni because they had touched the peas. The essence of pea had ruined each molecule of creamy, corporate manufactured pasta. To this day I stand by my wee stubbornness concerning green vegetables. I liked my food in seperate containers. I liked my food with different sets of silverware for different things. I liked my food bland and predictable. My childhood eating behaviors were clearly eccentric. I loved cottage cheese and canned apricots eccentric. I refused to even entertain the idea of a sandwich until age twelve eccentric.
Now…I am less child some days and more Peace Corps Volunteer. I have much less control over what I eat than even my six-year-old self did. I serve a Phu Thai community in the Issan region of Thailand. My community is rooted in their traditional ways of life, meaning they are very invested in their cultural heritage and legacy. Phu Thai food centers on very bitter tasting vegetables and bamboo. They tell me these dishes are good for your skin, and that is why Phu Thai women are so beautiful. I believe them, wholeheartedly. Historically, there wasn’t a lot of wood available in Issan region, therefore traditional food tends to be raw, even the meat. As the volunteer who serves this community, I end up ingesting, swallowing, and consuming some things my girl-self would struggle with.
When I first arrived at my site, I learned people in my region find red ant eggs a delicacy; this was one of the first things they served me. The eggs are damn expensive and typically found floating in those aforementioned bitter greens. That specific dish gives you the whole slightly-raw inner cheeks, numb tingly sensation at the moment of consumption. The ant eggs pop and are surprisingly spicy. My second day in, I ate whole raw tadpoles for breakfast sitting across from a nearly blind grandmother. We shared the platter of food at an early hour of the morning. I worked through their chewiness and mild flavor, the grandmother laughed at me, our new shared realities amusing. I thought of my own grandmother’s constant retelling of the peas, and I smiled to myself in a self-congratulatory way. This was a triumphant win.
Once, my counterpart brought a whole bag of live cicada’s to the office and offered them to a fellow volunteer who was visiting me, in the selflessly giving way that won’t ever stop surprising me. Whenever she opened the drawer in her desk throughout the day, you could hear them whirring and vibrating about in their plastic bag. Have a loud but nutritious snack, they seemed to say. During lunch at the office, I have had raw lizard served to me with pride. I tried it under much scrutiny, dipping a ball of sticky rice into the mixture of reptile skin and spices. I did this with an audience, receiving an ovation of smiles and giggles as I swallowed. My desk is occasionally the spot where the ladies and children who come through the local office sell their live frogs, toads, insects, and lizards. The fresh mushrooms that are laid out while I scroll through the internet are always my favorite days. I am rarely bored, and I am rarely within my culinary comfort zone. Food here is fresh caught, freshly cooked, and always makes demands of my girl-self.
I have tried the Thai version of steak tartare, a raw beef and spice mix. It’s a bloody plate for sure, red and raw. A dish designed to remind you that you have seen these animals on your bike ride to the office: they watch me whiz by every morning. Perhaps my reaction is an indication that my relationship to the sterile meat isle of my grocery store back home should be more fraught than it is. Trying this dish will gain you admiration from the male side of the table, surprise and worry from the female. Approving jokes from both.
There’s a dish I still have trouble bringing myself to venture into, its main ingredient uses cow mouth and its stomach bile as a seasoning. I still struggle to bring myself to try it, my bravery lacking and my resistance strong; yet I always watch with wonder when it is served as the women in my office quickly breathe in, pulling air into their mouths to tone down its bite. I think of my story then too, echos of my childhood stubbornness still holding me back.
I have eaten rat and frog unknowingly, like I am sure many volunteers have. A grandmother has spoon fed me freshly-cooked silkworm that makes me miss a mushy gnocchi of my past life: another triumphant win. I have borne witness to the preparation of boiling a whole baby pig late one night across the street from my house. It is the women around me I have to thank for these moments, past and current.
My grandmother at site, Yai Gop, makes sure I eat everyday and constantly feeds me. She will arrive at my door, grinning with a huge knife and fresh coconuts. She will cross the street in pouring rain to make sure I have eaten dinner and give me a plate of peanuts. When she met my mother, she assured her I was taken care of. I very much am. My counterpart and my Yai recently had a conversation about how good it is that I am fatter than when I first arrived. “You are fatter because you are being cared for,” they said. Approving glances exchanged between them: “We have loved this little foreigner,” they seemed to say. They aren’t wrong.
Many fellow volunteers talk about how immediate a connection can be made through food. A shared meal or cooking together is a deeply vital part of being a member within the social fabric around you. Often I think of my girl-self when I am asked to try something new, when I think back on the laundry list of things I have shoved in my mouth and swallowed, with time learned to like. Most of my consumption is through curiosity, my own love and recognition of others generosity and pride. That has changed since the peas, right?
I think of my counterpart who, upon trying parmesan and pesto, ran and spat it out as any brave first-timer with aged cheese would. I think of every pretentious chef on every Netflix food documentary I have drooled over, who expounds on the joys and meaning of cooking from home. Food from your mother and grandmother creates memories – visceral, vivid childhood memories – that are sacred blueprints for how we experience food, the men on the screen say, their voices brimming with profundity. My sacred texts used to be peas and macaroni. Now they are sticky rice, som tam, and a fried egg. There’s a new blueprint for being loved and welcomed through food forming in each ask and encouragement to try something, even a year into my service. This is how I am tenderly brought into the fold. In each of these moments when I ask myself to eat something my girl-self would refuse, I like to think I am honoring my grandmother, my mother, their strife in feeding me. Honoring the maternal forces in my life who struggled through my demands for control many years ago. Look and see how far I have come. Look and see me now. I promise I can handle the peas touching the macaroni. I promise, I can handle the love now.