(* During the first year of the pandemic, Julia Turshen (@turshen) hosted daily food writing classes on her Instagram with writing prompts and special guests. These are my responses to her prompts.)
* I posted a modified Turon recipe using Caramelized Apples for a more Midwestern twist HERE.
Prompt for Tues. 3/24: “What is the first thing you ever cooked?”
I moved to United States in Sophomore Year of High School, trading the burning sands of the conservatively Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the frigid snow of the conservatively Catholic St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin (population: 762). At fifteen years old, I was way out of my element, completely ignorant of the things American boys cared about at the time: how to ask a girl out, the best episodes of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the communal enjoyment of the peculiar delicacy they called “Peanut Butter & Jelly”.
Far from what friends back home imagined, the all-boys boarding school was not filled with ultra-religious farm boys, a predominantly white population of Germanic descent (Caucasians only formed 30% of the student body), or problem children whose parents thought the Bibles would serve better than Boot Camp. Instead we had sons of Vietnamese businessmen in California, of Mexican doctors in Chicago, of Indian engineers, Korean construction tycoons, and Hmong refugees. Boys came from as far as Ghana and we Filipinos had a sizable contingent coming from Saudi Arabia. It was a blessing to be exposed to a wide swath of the world despite being atop a hill in a village that no one knew and while the prayers that were said in multiple languages, it was really in our after-school meals (often supplied by visiting families) that our “United Nations”-ness was celebrated – instant Jjajangmyeon traded in exchange for homework help, Tamales and Valentina-soaked Hot Cheetos after Sunday Mass, Spam Musubis with Sriracha folded amidst weekend games of ping pong.
Once a year, our global tastes would envelop the whole school in our annual tradition of “Ethnic Foods Night” (since renamed “Cultural Heritage Festival”) where students prepared foods from home en masse. After years of being relegated to chopping okra or stirring soup in my mom’s cramped and usually off-limits kitchen, it was the first time I actually cooked something from start to finish and led a team in doing so. The Filipino delegation contributed Turon, the classic snack/dessert of caramelized banana encased in fried egg roll wrappers. I remember the giddiness of being let into the commercial kitchen that lay behind swinging doors in the refectory that the lunch ladies would prepare the daily federally-regulated meals. In an age when everything I did seemed socially awkward or a cultural faux pas (apparently one does NOT eat with spoon and fork in these States), I felt at home showing fellow students how to coat the sliced bananas in brown sugar before rolling them into the wrappers, edges moistened with water. I felt an excitement in dropping them into deep fryers in batches when the only cooking implement we had in our dorms were microwaves. Most of all, I remember the stirrings of my love for cooking and that despite the many differences we seminarians had between us, everything seemed to dissolve on our plates; a mix of kimbaps, wursts, and turons.