Brown Food

I’ve been trying to cook through the last of the CSA bounty and tonight there was still the matter of one sad, slightly browning  head of cabbage in the crisper drawer. I really like cabbage, but the common green kind–the kind you think of when making corned beef and cabbage or sauerkraut–is not my favorite. I prefer Nappa or the Chinese varieties. Even better, bok choy shredded and tossed with chili paste, fish sauce, mint and a little sugar for a crisp summer salad, or stir-fried until bright green with sesame oil and scallions.

In fact, stir-fry sounded good tonight and like a good way to use up the cabbage and the pork loin I took out of the freezer this morning. And it was good. Pork and cabbage with ginger, garlic, soy and a little black bean sauce. Simple and filling and full of flavor. (Unfortunately I burned the brown rice almost beyond recognition while trying to get Rudy to consent to a hair wash in the bath, but Paul says he likes crunchy rice. Good man.)

So yeah, yummy, but decidedly monochromatic. Brown on top of brown on top of brown. And I laughed as I plated it up, quipping to Paul, “My father would not have approved of this meal.”

I’ve written about my father’s particularities at table in several essays already, and thought this would be a fine occasion to share an excerpt from an as yet unpublished piece.

Buon Appetito!


–from “American Home Cookbook,” by Sheila Squillante

Brown food disappointed my father. I don’t mean he disliked walnuts or turkey gravy. I’m thinking now about a dinner we shared in our Connecticut home—these were the last years of my parents’ marriage—with a friend of theirs, a young woman who had married one of my father’s long-time friends. She had, by that strange mathematics that occurs when couples couple, become one of my mother’s best friends as well. Liz was younger than my mother by almost fifteen years and childless at that point. She was fierce and a little snotty and I loved having her around because our usual rule of silence at the dinner table was waived when she joined us.

In this memory, my mother has worked to prepare something she believes my father will enjoy—rosemary-rubbed lamb chops, maybe, or it could have been chicken Marsala, slippery with mushrooms and wine-sweet sauce. She brings it to the table with, I imagine, a combination of both pride (she knows she’s a good cook), and anxiety (she knows she can never please him), and we prepare to eat. Side dishes: rice pilaf and buttered niblet corn.

“It’s brown.”

My father stares at his plate, fork poised, aggravated. Two words. I see my mother deflate, her shoulders slump, her eyes lose focus. She’s gone without a fight.

“Corn’s not brown, it’s yellow,” my sister counters. She is also fierce and a little snotty. “Mom, this is really good.”

“It’s all brown,” He repeats. He’s looking at her now, a look I remember as half smirk, half frown. I feel nervous and sick—why does he always have to make her feel bad?—and scan the faces at the table one after the next trying to figure out what I can say to save this meal, to make my mother feel valued again.

“Brown, huh?” Liz gets up from the table and goes straight to my mother’s baking cupboard. She knows her way around this kitchen.

“You want color? Here. Here’s color. Knock yourself out.”

She hands my father the green food coloring we use at Easter and at Christmas to color the egg wash on our cookies—the ones he eats by the plateful every year.

My father didn’t say another word that night. No one did, but this time, the silence was different; this time it was full to bursting.

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