A nutritional liability ties a far-flung family together with gustatory– and cultural — magic
By Haley Hartline
Food takes a place in many important memories. During our birthdays, we eat cake; on Thanksgiving we eat turkey; on other holidays we typically gather and eat large dinners with our families. Usually, families gather together at the table then sit down to eat together. These events cause us to associate certain foods with events and family time. On other occasions, everyday meals with family also tend to bring you closer together. Unlike a lot of families that eat together, my family is usually too busy to sit and eat together at the table, although there is one recipe that does bring my immediate family closer together; one that I always associate with my family. “Hamburger Stuff.” This is a recipe made very often in my house due to its delicious taste and cheap ingredients. It’s an everyday meal that no one gets tired of. My family learned this recipe from my grandmother, on my dad’s side, who was born and raised in Thailand. Although I’m not very close with my family, whenever I eat this meal, I feel like it brings us together. Food can always bring family closer together, even relatives on the other side of the world.
Our Hamburger Stuff recipe is extremely simple to make and only requires a few ingredients, but its simplicity does not compare to its complex taste. It consists of ground hamburger, onions, celery, lemon juice, mint leaves, red pepper flakes, and the secret ingredient: fish sauce. I know, strange right? Fish sauce is not something you would typically eat alone, but when cooked into the ground beef and mixed with the different spices, it becomes an umami flavor that you can’t resist. After everything cooked together, you put it on top of freshly cooked rice to have a perfect meal. The first mouthful is always the best, the fluffy rice soaked in fish sauce and the savory, yet slightly spicy, flavor of the meat makes your mouth melt. I can eat bowls and bowls of Hamburger Stuff. Sometimes it is just too flavorful to stop eating! It is my family’s traditional comfort recipe.
When I was very little, my grandmother taught us this recipe. It was something she learned while living in Thailand, where she was born. Whenever I eat Hamburger Stuff, I always think about her. She used to cook for me all the time when I was younger. I can still remember sitting at the table in her small yellow kitchen. While waiting for the food, I would play a myriad of card games, usually solitaire or war, with a deck of cards she always had on the table. I would watch her little dog roam around the kitchen, sometimes brushing past my leg. The aroma of rice would fill the air, causing my mouth to start watering. When the food was close to being finished, she would offer us a drink of either Gatorade or milk. We would get a bowl and fill it with the freshly cooked rice, then Hamburger Stuff, and finally topping it off with fish sauce. It is always flavorful when she makes it, but it will never compare to the bowl I ate when we visited Thailand together.
During my ninth-grade summer, when I was fifteen, my grandmother took me to Thailand so I could meet our family who lived over there. It was such a wonderful time. When we first arrived, we stayed at a house she owned in Nakhon Ratchasima. Since she had not been there for a long time, the house didn’t have a fridge or any furniture except for some beds in the rooms to sleep. Since there wasn’t a refrigerator we ended up buying a lot of microwavable food from the gas station. We visited some of the hundreds of gas stations they have throughout Thailand. Some of the 7-Elevens even had microwaves you could use to heat up what you bought. Most of the meals consisted of a choice meat and rice, but some were just a meat on a stick. Some of the non-microwavable foods consisted of sandwiches, my favorite was the panda shaped PB&J. These meals, although prepackaged, and from a gas station, weren’t that bad. However, they could never compare to the home-cooked meals my cousins made us. One day we traveled to Sisaket to stay with my grandmother’s sister and her family. My cousin Ling Ling was always by my side;even though we could barely communicate she still showed me lots of love. We would use Google Translate to communicate back and forth. During our time there they cooked us three meals a day. Breakfast consisted of rice and fish, lunch was usually the same, and dinner was a meat and rice. One day, one of the meals looked very similar and I did not realize why. Once I tried it, I realized it was like hamburger stuff, but it was also very different. Although the combination was on top of rice like how my family does it, there were a lot more ingredients used. There were carrots, broccoli, and many more vegetables in it. While watching them cooking I saw them use a myriad of different spices. In my first bite I tasted all of them at once. It had a savory flavor, but it was also extremely spicy. We all sat at the table and enjoyed this wonderful meal together. I felt very connected to my family at that moment, a meal I eat at home is enjoyed by the family I love thousands of miles away. Meeting and living with my Thai family is an experience I will never forget. Learning that they also eat the same meal although It made me feel that even though we were far away from each other, we still connected by eating the same food.
My immediate family is a different story. We aren’t very close, and we never usually do things together. Normally, no one cooks dinner and we just eat at our jobs, but occasionally someone will cook. We never eat together at the table like a family. My mom will make Hamburger Stuff usually once a month. When she does, my family will eat together, not usually at the table, but together. Also, it brings us closer together because we created the name for it. My grandmother never told us a name for it. I never asked her what to call it when I went to Thailand, but since it is only hamburger and other stuff, we just named it “Hamburger Stuff.” We’ve been calling it by that name ever since I was little.
Around the time I was twelve, my taste in food started to change. I never really liked the sight of blood, or eating pink food, so I cut out all red meat from my diet. It was a very strange thing to my family because they all love things like steak and hamburgers. But while trying to cut out all red meats, I hit a problem. I loved Hamburger Stuff. So, when they made it, I wondered, “Should I eat it?” It is something I have always enjoyed. Eventually, I could not resist the delicious taste. Now, I have cut out all red meats except this meal. I wonder why I could not cut out this family favorite. But to this day I still enjoy it every time my family makes it.
We connect a lot of our memories and emotions with food. Even the smallest events can connect you with others. Food is an important thing in everyone’s lives and cultures, so it is not surprising that a lot of people connect food to their family. Even if your family does not eat at a table together, the food you eat can still make you feel close. Whether it is cotton candy reminding you of childhood memories of carnivals, or rice and fish sauce reminding you of international family. Those small moments of happiness are what matter most.