(Originally written 2009)
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Oh the joys of growing up in Michigan. That statement might sound like it’s dripping with sarcasm but I truly mean it. I was fortunate enough to be born into the Hungarian neighborhood of Delray in Detroit where I was introduced to European cuisine at a very young age. I teethed on Kolbasz, a kind of sausage similar to the Polish Kielbasa. However, my true cravings were for Pinkelwurst and Hurka. A true passion developed for chicken paprikash, a Hungarian style dumpling dish. Christmases were filled with Lebkuchen, a German ginger bread, and my mother’s delectable homemade fruit cake. People that state they don’t enjoy the pastry and would rather regift it or use it as a doorstop have never tried my parents' recipe. After having delivered the Christmas cakes to neighbors and friends, we would open our gifts on Christmas Eve, German style, and eat more ethnic goods like Eastern European cheesecakes or Kolache, a poppy seed roll.
My neighbors, German like my mother, loved to hunt. One occasion they cooked up some venison, which I enjoy. This time it was greasy which was unusual but nevertheless, very tasty. Then I was informed it was bear meat. I didn’t want to even touch it after that. I’ve since learned, according to one book I read, that bear meat is a Cherokee’s favorite food. That explains why I liked the taste, I guess, because my papa is Scots-Irish and Cherokee.
As a preschooler when we first moved Downriver, my Arabic neighbor Amelia who lived next door, served my family flatbread and lamb. She was born in Lebanon. I soon learned to call her “Grandma”. More than the unfamiliar taste of Kibbe I enjoyed sneaking out of my house before my parents woke up to enjoy a breakfast of coffee and donuts at Amelia’s. Of course, my drink was mostly cream with just a dash of coffee to warm it up!
Despite my childhood protests, my mother made me try a little of everything. If at first I didn’t like a flavor, if not pressured into tasting it, I’d eventually grow to love it. I grew up with Chinese, Italian and Southern cooking, in addition to many other styles, due to the varied cultures that had settled in Detroit. I listened to Rock-and-roll, Mariachi, Polka, Country and of course, Mo-town.
While some people dip into ice cream or grab chips for comfort food, I heat up a jar of sauerkraut or drown my tears in Southern Beans, my American Grandmother’s recipe. Also handed down for several generations is what my Grandmother’s family called biscuits. They are actually called “scones” in Scotland. Grandma also made a true cornbread from white cornmeal. It is unlike the sugary cake-like bread made from yellow cornmeal. It has an almost popcorn taste and is not sweet, but comforting to me nevertheless. I absolutely love Asian food too! My sisters are of Japanese descent (as a result of my mother’s first marriage). My oldest sister taught me how to make wontons, Korean style. Additionally, my mother taught me how to make Japanese fried rice. As an adult, living part-time in the southwest, I’ve come to love Tex-Mex cooking. I actually can do these recipes in my home kitchen as the ingredients are found in abundance at my local market, unlike most other goods I need to make European fare. I guess I can chalk that up to supply and demand?
I have Scots-Irish, Cherokee, German, Polish, Hungarian, Arabic, Asian, Filipino-Creole friends and relatives. Is it any wonder why I love all these fantastic flavors and foods? I can talk to virtually any ethnicity or culture and for the most part I love them all with few exceptions. Whatever cultures are not in my family will most likely marry into it in a generation or two. What we like about each other comes from the heart. What we dislike stems from petty grievances and past mistakes that are, as yet, unforgiven and have nothing to do with our ethnicity nor religion.
I feel fortunate that I grew up in metro-Detroit and met all these wonderful people from a variety of cultures. Simply put, we all have the ability to live with each other peacefully. That is, after all, the mission of a tiny baby that was sent to us over 2000 years ago. May your family be blessed with peace, may your home me filled with traditions and may your table be laden with delicious foods. Happy eating and Merry Christmas.