Growing up, I learned there's nothing a nice potato-chip topping can't make better. I was raised on cuisine de church pot-luck, which is by turns salty and crunchy or sweet and mushy. But it is always careful and colorful, full of lime Jell-O, Dundee Onion Crispies, and the ubiquitous potato-chip topping. In these times of cilantro madness and Mediterranean this, or baba ghanouj that, I must admit I find true comfort in the casserole.
I was not born into this cuisine. My roots are in the depths of the South Pacific Ocean, in the rocky, salty island soil that grows gnarls of taro roots. Palm trees reach toward the ocean with jewels of niu, the fizz-filled green coconuts.
My parents emigrated to the mainland in the 1960s. My mother bought a trio of avocado-green casserole dishes, an electric frying pan, and a fancy ring-shaped mold for Jell-O salads and Bundt cakes. She learned Americana through a subscription to Good Housekeeping magazine.
We ate beans and weenies and pigs in blankets. We ate chicken casseroles and tuna casseroles. We ate everything slathered in cans of cream of mushroom soup with those rubbery black-brown cubes of mushrooms. We lived for the crunchy, salty potato-chip topping. Sometimes, there was spicy Chicken Ol decorated with electric-yellow triangles of processed American cheese. We lived our mother's lessons in home economics.
My father, however, insisted on the foods of his childhood: cubes of pink, raw fish in lime juice, sprinkled with stinky spring onions; chunks of gray taro root covered in coconut cream; hot Korean kim chee to sop it all up. My brothers and I avoided looking directly at these foods, lest they turn us to pillars of salt. No one at Grapevine Elementary School, home of the Grapevine Grizzlies, brought kim chee in their Charlie's Angels lunch boxes. We didn't understand that his food was our food, too.
It is a good potato salad, a tray of deviled eggs, a red Jell-O salad with a dollop of Cool Whip that can, to this day, make my eyes a little dewy. I ate these foods at so many summer potlucks in city parks with others in my extended family. Some were trying to make ends meet; others were trying to melt in the pot.
A FRIEND recently told me about a wedding she'd been invited to. It was for a distant cousin in the Midwest. The invitation said. "RSVP with your potluck contribution." We had a good, hard bourgeois laugh about that, though in my heart, I knew I had attended potluck wedding receptions.
She hooted, telling me about her great-aunt's recipe for Dump Cake: "Dump in Krusteaz All-Purpose Baking Mix. Dump in Del Monte Fruit Cocktail. Dump in various other colorfully preserved food items of your choice." Then you bake it all up into a cake, and that cake is perfect for a birthday, or a baby shower, or even a wedding potluck in a pinch.
I eat lots of different things, now that I am all grown up: spicy Thai food, squid, and smelly feta cheese. I even eat my father's crazy foods. But I tell you, I really believe in Dump Cake. I believe in scraping together the things that can fill your belly, until you can afford things that aren't always in cans, things that are exotic and delicious. I believe that if you dump and stir and hope, something comes together and rises to the surface. Something turns into food to grow on, food to laugh over, food to bring people together.