Here's a hint: it's not "survival".
The reason is: my mom. Now, before you roll your eyes and scroll away, hear me out! It's not just because she cooks a lot, although, that's a perk. It's because she cooks beautiful, delicious, life-altering food. She taught me everything she knows about cooking Thai food, from using authentic ingredients to what substitutions work when you can't find those authentic ingredients.
Her name is Walailaksna, and she grew up in Bangkok eating breakfast jok her mother would make, riding her bike to school, and dreaming of someday becoming a fashion designer. She led a sunny childhood until her teenage years when all those dreams faded (a different story, and not mine to tell, I'm afraid). After mothering two children in Thailand and, unable to continue her education in Bangkok, she decided to join the Thai air force as a chef. She lived on base working for a couple years, making friends and cooking. These two things, I found, are key ingredients for healing emotional wounds. It soon turned out that one of her friends over the years wanted to ask her out on a date. A U.S. airman stationed there, my dad, apparently chewed gum a lot and my mom thought "it was so cute." That was my cue for an eye roll. But, anyway, they fell in love. Soon after, he brought her to the U.S. and they married in Maine.
Part of the reason my mother's story inspires my so much to keep working for my dreams is because of her persistence. She had three children in America with my dad. For 17 years they were married until he asked her for a divorce. My guess is fewer than 17 were happy years. But as a three year old, you don't really get informed on these things. We all packed up and moved into a new house, sans my dad. It was mostly in this house that I'd waddle into my mom's room and find her crying. She'd later tell me that she left Thailand to come to the U.S. against her family's wishes. Her mother told her my dad would leave her. Now, her worst nightmare had been realized: she had no family, no friends. Just a job and three kids in a country far from home. Many times she wanted to run away back to Thailand, but the only thing that kept her here was a painful devotion to her three youngest kids. And so she stayed.
All this heartache happened before I was even ready to start boiling water... BUT I was already baking. Did you know, when you're three years old, you don't notice anyone's sarcasm, bullshit moments or tense situations? All my memories before "the divorce" were bright, happy baking moments with my mom. Baking chocolate chip cookies is my favorite memory. We had a clangy, thin aluminum sifter and it was my duty to sift the flour into the bowl. Turns out, you totally don't need to sift AP flour into your chocolate chip cookies, but 3 year old me was enthralled by this must-do step in the process.
After we moved, persistent as ever, Mom worked two jobs, sent three kids to school, got us home safely and made us dinner every night. Not just dinner. Not just three kids. Mountains of delicious Thai food. Three ravenous children. Each six years apart in age. So, basically, she always had at least one teenaged appetite scrounging for food and, boy, did she know how to handle it. Every night, a 6 quart rice cooker steamed away on the counter NO MATTER WHAT. Like, we had rice with our rice. She's making lasagna? Rice, too. Pad See Ew? Rice, too.
My favorite meal growing up: Rice, eggs, and Maggi soy sauce.
I haven't mentioned this yet but I have two older brothers (they trained me how to eat). I didn't have a sister. But if I did have a sister, it was Maggi. She and I were so close. Maggi was definitely part of the family.
Night after night, never failing, my mother was relentless. Working to make a beautiful home and a good life in America for her kids. And we were so blessed that hunger was the furthest thing from us because of her. Beyond this, we each fell in love with cooking, experimenting with recipes and finding delicious flavors. Naturally, of the three children, I am the most talented, and all around glorious at food creation. Ya know...after I tried to make a peanut butter omelet once. Don't do it.
We're all grown now and my mom has been with her soul mate for over 25 years. They garden, explore the world, laugh too much and, of course, my mom cooks. She finds every opportunity to teach me Thai recipes that I swear I learn but never make as perfectly. And as my insatiable curiosity to try new recipes increases, I go to her house and give them a whirl. I try my best to impress her. It works usually. She's the one who taught me to take chances in cooking and in living. That life is a series of choices and determination to build the life you want.
The reason I love food has everything to do with this woman. Every time I switch on the stove.
I love food because it reminds me of who I am.