Aunt Jemima, Mammy, and Me

Cooking is hollow without identity, and there’s a reason why food cooked with ingredients that are out of season, but even more so out of place, can taste so meaningless. Cooking, if it is anything, is a road map. It allows others to experience where you and your people have been. And if you are particularly good at it, you can push the boundaries to imagine where you have the potential to go. If you happen to have grown up in a big Italian household, or one where the Jewish High Holidays don’t stand a chance of falling by the wayside, or where your grandmother’s Persian rice technique is practically dowry, as a chef, you come preloaded with that map. You know where to begin, and even if the journey is tenuous, you have guardrails on which to lean. As a chef, genetic code is everything.

All I knew was that I was from Minnesota, so I tried to embrace that as an identity: fish fries, pot roast, refrigerator pickles, a clever hack for sweet corn that brings the Caribbean to the table along with my beloved Minnesota. But it wasn’t enough to hang a culinary identity on. If identity was everything, given the inherent duality of being biracial, my cooking needed to bring in both aspects of my DNA, not just the ones that make me the proud great granddaughter of Myrtle Lilleskov, who was 100 percent Norwegian.