Saturday, September 11, 2010


People of means do not eat rice. Risotto is a rich person’s dish, the name dressed up as much as the simple kernel itself. Fifty pound bags of granular substance are reserved for second and third world countries. To make a meal of rice is so un-American, it is justified only by the accompaniment beans and maracas.

Yet this snubbed food symbolizes home to me. Not because I am from a rice country, but because we didn’t have much.

For most people, a snowy day locked indoors in front of hot pine embers translates to mugs of hot chocolate and down filled blankets. It means reruns of black and whites and snow cones made from freshly fallen white stuff. Often, it also means bare cupboards since a trip to town is out of the question for several more days. Once the last bit of beef is cooked and the large storage freezer is empty, it is time to dig deep into the pantry, because if there is nothing else, there is always a bag of rice. Those who’d canned their own goods the season before subsist on jam, pickles, and beets smeared onto baking powder biscuits. Because there is always flour and sugar. There is always flour and there is always sugar and there is always rice. When all other stored goods are gone, a savvy New Englander knows how to turn flour and sugar and rice into three days of meals. And often, we did.

We did so not only because of winter’s vengeance, but because of unreliable jobs, manufacturing’s jaunt overseas, and the occasional deluge of medical bills when the health insurance safety net snapped free. Rice did not taste poor to me. It was a special cereal not sold in stores – a homemade kind. It was warm and sweet with butter, milk, and sugar. It was filling, nutritious, and yummy. It was comfort food.

Rarely now do I eat rice and milk. Indulging in the sticky stuff is reserved for Chinese take-out night then tossed with the leftovers into the garbage. A lack of food – or even a lack of a paycheck and health insurance – is far from my mind. Recently, though, there was nothing to eat. The fridge, freezer, and shelves were full, but laziness trumped any urge to cook something. But there in the back of the fridge was a week-old container filled with dried up rice. Jackpot.

Something from home filled my bones as I soaked it in milk, sprinkled it with sugar, and zapped it warm. But it wasn’t the same. It didn’t taste like home. It was crunchy not comforting, weak not warm, bland not bold. Perhaps because I didn’t have to eat it to survive. Or maybe it was the 70 degree air outside. It is possible, though, that it needed to sit on a back shelf and soak in sadness, poverty, despair and madness. When cooked with sour milk and disguised with sugar, it tastes like home.

More likely, the rice concoction always tasted like it did the other night. Maybe my life of means has changed my tastes into one that demands it be dressed up and renamed, served on fancy plates at sky high prices. I do love rice pudding, a treat I discovered in adulthood. Cooked with loads of expensive butter and cream and stirred by hand for hours on end, it is an annual indulgence enjoyed by the whole family. When my baby is grown, I wonder if the combination of cinnamon, rice, butter, and cream will paint home to him. And I wonder if it will taste the same or if he will have moved beyond such a humble dish. Most of all, I wonder how it will once again reinvent itself from rice to riches.