DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And it's time again for another segment from the Race Card Project, where NPR's Michele Norris collects six-word stories about race, culture and ethnicity. Since it's the holiday season, we decided to dip into the trove of stories that reference food or the family dinner table, like this one from a woman in Sacramento, California.
MELANIE VANDERLIPE RAMIL: My name is Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, and these are my six words. I ate pasta, family ate rice. Growing up, I wanted to be as non-Filipino as possible and felt great achievement whenever friends said to me, you seem so white. During my middle school years, I claimed to not like rice, which is a staple for every night's family dinner.
My mom, after rushing home from work to cook dinner for us every single day, relented and lovingly prepared pasta for me while the rest of the family ate rice and the evening's accompanying meat dish.
GREENE: Okay. So Melanie's six words are I ate pasta, family ate rice. NPR's Michele Norris is curator of the Race Card Project and she joins us to tell us more about Melanie. And Michele, welcome back.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Good to be here, David.
GREENE: So tell us why Melanie refused to eat rice.
NORRIS: She wanted to be more American and her parent were immigrants, and they wanted her to be more American. She said she just got tired of always eating rice. She was embarrassed when her friends came over and they didn't have pizza or hot dogs or tater tots like they had in the other households, and so she rejected rice because it represented something that she wanted to move away from.
RAMIL: I don't remember a pushback from my mom, which one day if I'm a mom and I hear my daughter say that, I might push back a little and I hope I do. But I just remember her scrambling in the kitchen. I always remember her coming home from work, still wearing her work clothes, with an apron that she actually still wears today, running around making a hot meal every night for our sit-down family dinner.
And then she would pull out my Pasta Roni box and prepare this processed pasta dish for me because I claimed not to like rice.
GREENE: I love how she's taking us right into the kitchen there. You know, Michele, my mom would never have let me dictate what was going to come to the table. It sounds like this mother understands, though, that there's something deeper going on in Melanie's mind.
NORRIS: Yeah, I can't imagine dictating the family dinner to my mother either. But in this case, the parents had wanted their kids to be American. They wanted them to succeed in America and so they were trying to help them assimilate. When Melanie tells the story, she cringes a little bit. She's a little bit ashamed of what she used to do, standing in the family kitchen and saying I hate rice, I don't want to eat rice anymore.
And she cringes because she knows that rice represents, in a fundamental way, who they were as a family.
GREENE: Talk a little bit more about that, why rice was so important to this family.
NORRIS: They ate it every meal. They had it morning, noon and night. For instance, we all think of an American breakfast, bacon and eggs. Well, in their household it was bacon, eggs and rice.
RAMIL: I have to describe this because everyone should go home and make this on the weekend. You got to do this. You fry white rice, you know, throw in, of course, butter in the pan, salt, pepper, gotta have the garlic salt, and then you crack an egg over it, mix it all together.
So my brother and I would call that yellow rice. But the kicker is, you gotta have crunchy bacon, throw it over your rice and mix it in.
NORRIS: It's too bad that we don't have the food in here (unintelligible)...
GREENE: It really is. It's making me hungry.
NORRIS: She says her family used so much rice that you couldn't keep it in the cupboard. They had a contraption in their kitchen. It was actually a piece of furniture that held these 50-pound bags of rice. It was a centerpiece in their kitchen.
RAMIL: It was about four feet tall. I never knew life without it in my parents' kitchen. And then there's three levers and so you push one, two or three and that's one, two or three cups of rice. And the bottom has a drawer, if you will. And so after you press your one, two or three cups, you pull the drawer out, and there, you're ready to make rice in your rice cooker.
But my friends would come over and they would ask me what that was and be perplexed by it. And I was confused right back at them, not knowing why they wouldn't know what a rice dispenser was.
GREENE: She sounds almost nostalgic about a food that she was trying to avoid, like there's some sort of evolution going on here.
NORRIS: Well, because she doesn't avoid it anymore. In fact, she wishes now that she had spent more time at her mother's side in the kitchen learning about those Filipino dishes. She yearns for those dishes today and she says that some time after she left home, went to college, she started to take classes and learn about Filipino culture.
It was at that moment that she had this sort of cultural awakening.
RAMIL: It was called Filipino American Contemporary Issues, and that dinky little class that I thought would be nothing, just another, you know, hour or two. That week changed my life and my connection to identity.
NORRIS: Melanie's identity has shifted over time and her family identity has shifted over time also. She's part of a great big family. There are more than 100 of them, and many of her older cousins married people who were not Filipino, and so they have this great big blended family.
And there's this irony now that Melanie, the family member who once rejected rice, is the one who's been railing against this and saying wait a minute, we have to hold on to these traditions. We have to hold on to some of these dishes. We have to remember who we are.
GREENE: The rice is important.
NORRIS: The rice is important.
GREENE: We've got to have a lot of rice.
NORRIS: And there's one dish in particular that she's really trying hard to hold onto. It's almost like an appetizer. It's called lumpia.
GREENE: Lumpia. What is this?
NORRIS: We should let her describe it.
RAMIL: I describe a lumpia as an eggroll, but better.
NORRIS: So, like an eggroll it is filled with ground pork and very finely chopped vegetables. And Melanie learned how to cook lumpia from her grandmother. Her grandmother lived to be 100 and before she left this earth she taught her how to make this dish. And so now she is making sure that the younger generation, the kids in the family, know how to make this traditional dish.
RAMIL: I would prepare my grandmother's lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will. And so what I did was for each of my cousins' children, I think they outnumber us now, there are about 25 or 30 of them, I would put a placemat in front of them, lumpia wrappers in front of them, a little bowl of raw meat.
It was a little nerve-wracking, but I thought, hey, we need to learn how to cook here. It's a really neat time, because while they're rolling, I'll bring in my older cousins, my aunts and uncles, and all of them will just - they just love it. And we just all talk about stories of my grandmother cooking, our family. And I just - I love the tradition and it's coming up, so I'm very excited.
NORRIS: Love that you call it the lumpia sweatshop.
Because I always think if any stranger walked in right now, what would they think I was doing if I have all these little hands rolling lumpia.
GREENE: You know, I'm so struck by Melanie's journey, Michele. I mean at first figuring out a way to reject her identity, but then coming around to learn about it, embrace it. Is this something you see often?
NORRIS: We get a lot of submissions, six-word submissions, about the family table, and you know, food is a big part of our identity. Our memories are tied to what we remember from the family dinner table. It's where traditions are passed on, and so there's this strong connection about food and culture and ethnicity and the past and also the future.
GREENE: Michele, thanks for coming in, as always, and have a great Thanksgiving.
NORRIS: Happy Thanksgiving to you. Hope it's bountiful.
GREENE: NPR's Michele Norris curates the Race Card Project. And maybe you're like Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil and have traditional holiday dishes you're trying to keep alive. Tell us about them by emailing our food blog at TheSalt@NPR.org or tweet them to us with the hashtag EndangeredDish.