With two young sons who are Nigerian and American on my side, and French and Vietnamese on their father's side, I put a lot of effort into creating a home that radiates knowledge, stories, and souvenirs from our family's manifold heritages. I want my sons to see themselves in the books they read, to understand the languages they hear, and to feel connected to the food they eat.
Lately, I've been daydreaming about preparing a heritage menu that would include a dessert from each of my sons' native backgrounds. Since I'm a food memoirist and teach writing workshops in the genre for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation and Otis College of Art & Design, I'm selecting recipes from food memoirs I love written by French, Vietnamese, Nigerian, and American authors. Find my recommendations below.
We'd kick things off by sampling the most labor-intensive recipe on the menu: steamed flan with ginger from a recent addition to my syllabus, Mango and Peppercorns: A Memoir of Food, an Unlikely Family, and the American Dream by Tung Nguyen, Katherine Manning, and Lyn Nguyen with Elisa Ung. The book portrays the lifelong friendship that formed between a Vietnamese refugee (Tung) and her American hostess (Katherine) in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The pair eventually open a successful Vietnamese restaurant near Miami's Little Havana. When I read Tung's story of making it in the United States with the odds stacked against her, I couldn't help but think of my mother-in-law and her journey to France as a refugee, where she has spent the past three decades opening up restaurants of her own.
Tung's five-ingredient recipe (sugar, eggs, julienned ginger, sweetened condensed milk, and water) requires precision that might take a few tries to master. To get the perfect flan, you have to stand at the stove, stirring constantly, taking caution not to burn the caramel. It takes time and hard work, but the labor is well worth the effort when your spoon first glides through the silky, supple custard. We'd savor each bite, allowing the subtle taste of ginger to mingle with the flan's caramel-like flavors.
After finishing off our flan, we'd move on to the next item on the platter: The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies from illustrated food memoir Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley, a hands-down student favorite on my course reading list. Knisley uses the graphic novel format to tell her story of growing up in New York City and Upstate New York with a mom who was a chef and a dad who was a food connoisseur.
Knisley writes of the comfort in baking chocolate chip cookies. "For me, the act of assembling and combining chocolate chip cookie ingredients is like watching 'The Sound of Music,'" she says. Her recipe is comfortably familiar to anyone who has ever made chocolate chip cookies before, though she adds a cup of coconut flakes, which I recommend increasing if you love coconut as much as I do.
While my boys and I nibble on our cookies, I'd tell them just how All-American the chocolate chip cookie is, having been created by accident during the 1930s by Ruth Wakefield, who owned the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. She added broken pieces of a chocolate bar into her cookie batter assuming incorrectly that they would melt. We'd giggle while applauding her delicious error.
Then we'd dive into the next item on the platter: Peppered puff-puffs with the aroma of newsprint from Yemisí Aríbisálà's Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds, a recent find that I look forward to adding to my syllabus. In her memoir, Aríbisálà memorably introduces the world to the complexity of Nigerian food. "Delicious as a tangible morsel of food sanctioned by the senses, journeying over the pink rug into the gut, it is also a multifaceted cultural treasure trove full of intriguing stories," she writes, after declaring her country's cuisine long overdue for its turn in the global spotlight.
Aríbisálà describes puff-puffs as "fried, sweet, bad things" served as a snack on the way to work. She encourages "a pinch of dried Cameroonian pepper" in the dough for a surprise kick of spice, but for this dessert platter we'll take them sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
I would prepare the traditional treat in true Nigerian fashion by fishing the puff-puffs "out of the oil and [putting] them directly on the front page of today's newspaper," which Aríbisálà notes is the standard way for Nigerians to purchase their puff-puffs from street vendors on busy workday mornings. "[They] are not croquembouches, not doughnuts, and even if they were, even if you could buy them as street food in some other country, you wouldn't find the necessary punctuation of old newsprint flavor," she writes. So as we ate delicious bites of fried dough and licked specks of cinnamon and granulated sugar off our fingers, I'd ask my boys if they can taste the subtle hint of the L.A. Times on the puffs' exterior.
Finally, we'd conclude by sampling the last dessert on our platter: Macarons Aux Pignons from Madeleine Kamman's memoir When French Women Cook: A Gastronomic Memoir With Over 250 Recipes. Another recent addition to my reading list, Kamman's book tells of her culinary education at the hands of eight French women, all from different regions of the country. In her introduction Kamman says that her book is an attempt to bring back to life the France of the early 1960s that she left and is nostalgic for, a place she says no longer exists. "Where are you, my France, where women cooked, where the stars in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience. Where are you?" she writes.
Kamman's macaron recipe nods to tradition but has adapted to the times. She writes, "This is a modernized recipe. Years ago, one pounded the almonds with the sugar for two hours at least-or so it seemed to my young arms." So as my sons and I enjoyed each bite of these cookies, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, I'd make sure to point out that the almond paste that served as the cookie's main event and is a favorite ingredient in our household used to be much harder to acquire.
Having sampled a delicious dessert from each of their heritages, my sons and I would absolutely want second helpings, so we'd give the platter one more go around. We'd start all over again with Tung's ginger flan, enjoying each other's company as we devoured each jiggly, custardy spoonful and reflected on the pleasure of having so many cultures to call our own.