Rice thickening in cream. Chewy chunks of dried apricot you have to flick in with your fingernails because they stick to the wax paper. Under the hot beady kitchen lights, my pores open and the steam sinks in. I soften like a grain of rice, absorbing the fragrant air. I am consuming this dish in many ways, soaking up the moisture through my skin, the peppery smell of ground cinnamon and cardamom pods filling each inhale and making my eyes water. Despite the ancient, earthy feel of extracting ornate glass jars of spices with brittle, taped together labels and tapping out a carefully measured fraction of a teaspoon, I found this recipe on the internet. I have no yellow-paged book of traditional family recipes with a deceased aunt’s illegible cursive in the margin. No great-grandmother with a lace apron guiding my shaking hands. My cooking lacks the comfort found in deep familiarity; it tastes like homesickness for a non-existent home. A clear yet impossible ache. I cook waiting for my blood to buzz and my ancestors to speak to me: to tell me it is herbs like these that run through my veins. For something to claim me. I have only been met with silence like a pot of still water.
What is the flavor of Canada? Of this small tourist town which I live in? I have yet to taste it. I pray that it is something more than the artificial blue raspberry Dairy Queen slushies, and fries from a chain of trucks with a souvenir-like ‘eh?’ written on the side. The kind served in grease-soaked brown paper bags that leaked hot oil onto your bare thighs. It's not that these items aren’t part of me in their own way, but I need something deeper. Something hereditary that is made powerful by time, deeply good for you like kimchi. Family recipes are supposed to cast spells to bring back the past. They are supposed to be timeless, woven into the DNA of every generation to come. I suppose I do feel timeless, but in a groundless, non-linear sense. These kind of recipes are like built up over the years, layered like a growing onion. I am the seed, not yet planted and un-anchored, blowing listlessly in the dirt.
I turn the flame down and stir my rice pudding, which is stiffening nicely. I planned on adding less sugar than the recipe calls for- thinking it's a symbol of maturity, but I end up adding much more- half a cup at a time. Maturity is glorified anyways and besides; I owe no obedience to the stranger who wrote this recipe. Such is the bitter freedom of vagrancy. As I waited- impatiently, hungrily- I printed off a hard copy from my laptop. I cut three thick slices off a stick of butter and watched them melt over the rice in a languid release. Snaking golden rivers of fat run, sizzling and turning brown when they hit the metal edge of the pot. In the margins of the page, next to the step that says to add butter, I wrote: this will feel indulgent. that’s okay.
My blood hummed in the way I had fantasized about for so long, but instead of my ancestors I heard my own voice, telling me what to write. Diverging from the recipe, I added a handful of chopped dark chocolate. The wholesome fair-trade kind my mother kept our pantries stocked with. The kind I could never stomach when I was little but learned to love. A teaspoon of rum we bought on a P.E.I road trip for my father, and some shredded coconut my sister says is too flakey, so I always make a point of adding some. I scrawl the names of these three ingredients in a corner of empty space. I have not been deprived from my history, rather given a chance to create it. All this nameless space I can make valuable. I pause, noticing how the jarring cinnamon scent seems much sweeter when you breathe through your mouth. This newfound understanding is not weight lifted from my shoulders; it is the pleasant addition of it, a grounding purpose. The last thing I write, at the bottom of the first page of my new cookbook is: Make it personal. It is not something that must stay untouched. Let your food speak to the roots of your family. Nostalgia is a powerful flavor, and if you don’t know what it tastes like, find out.