As American as Steamed Rice

As the nation pauses on July 4th to cook burgers on backyard cart grills and jockey for prime spots on the lawn to glimpse hazy fireworks shows, it’s time to acknowledge the truth: We are a nation divided. I’m not talking here about rifts between Tea Partiers and supporters of individual mandates, or between marriage defenders and marriage supporters (it’s complicated). I’m talking about the divide between those who don’t have rice cookers permanently on their kitchen counters and those who do. I’m talking about America’s growing rice hegemony.

Traditionally—and by that I mean from the time of the Euro invasion—America has been a nation of bread: amber waves of grain, the world’s breadbasket, inventors of the wrapped extrusion known as Wonder. We have made Brown 'n Serve Dinner Rolls an essential component of our great national day of unity, Thanksgiving, whose very centerpiece dish is crammed with bread. We have ensured that the sandwich is the heart of every kid’s school lunch, and all but mandated the brown bag as its delivery vehicle.

But America’s growing Asian food culture is indifferent to bread, which is mostly an accessory: fine as a component of the grilled cheese or the PB&J, necessary for toast, and in the case of Tartine’s levain, sort of an interesting hobby. But otherwise: kind of dumb. Not like rice, which is nonoptional, essential, intrinsic to any understanding of eating.

You might think, "How dare some white guy—who grew up in a house where it was unthinkable to not have a loaf of San Francisco sourdough perpetually in the drawer—how dare some white guy theorize about America’s growing rice hegemony." But for two decades my home life has straddled bread culture and rice culture. For the 20 years I’ve been with Perry, my Filipino-American husband, he’s made sure there’s been an aluminum insert of cooked rice in the fridge, if not a fresh pot chuffing away in its electric cooker (we’ve got a couple of them).

For Perry’s 40th birthday, I even commissioned a cake in the shape of a rice cooker (pictured above). It seemed the perfect totem to mark his passage into early middle age, an object essential to his life up to that moment.

RICE IS LIFE
In Perry’s personal cosmology of eating, rice is the Big Bang, food’s original organizing event, against which other parts of a meal have to measure their significance. Whenever we’ve traveled in Europe we’ve rented apartments, rather than hotel rooms, mostly so we’d have a kitchen. In Barcelona, Paris, London, Perry’s made rice—just to have it around, to eat with a fried egg for breakfast, late-night drunk eating. Also to counteract the unsustainable succession of meals where bread, potatoes, or noodles were the only relief from meats, sauces, and—God forbid—an excess of cheese.

We’ve sought out sketchy Asian restaurants in Madrid and the Yucatán, just to get rice. And Perry’s only criticism of Nicolaus Balla’s beautiful Hungarian food at Bar Tartine in San Francisco? The lack of steamed rice as grounding for Balla’s rich, complex sauces. At the restaurant St. John in London recently, we were just finishing a lovely late lunch of braised beef cheek and fried pork trotters. As we got ready to leave, we noticed that the staff meal was being served at a long table: family-style bowls of the beef cheeks, along with liter bottles of Coke and a couple of big platters of steamed, Asian-style rice, which wasn’t on the menu.

“See?” Perry said. “I knew we should have asked for rice. I told you that’s what the food needed.” He was right. He always is.

THIS WAY TO THE CALROSE
Being with Perry has opened my eyes to a kind of hidden world of rice that white guys like me otherwise don’t see. Before 9/11 put airports on lockdown, we found ourselves facing a serious delay at San Francisco International; we decided to kill time by eating. Perry asked a security guy at the head of some chained-off stairs where we could grab a bite. The guy looked Filipino, and in a lowered voice, almost conspiratorially, replied: “There’s rice downstairs.” He made a gesture indicating he could simply unhook the chain and admit us to the lower level—where?—to some employee lounge, perhaps, where some jumbo electric cooker was perpetually available for staff scooping.

We didn’t take him up on his offer. Still, it was like discovering Filipino secret code, some National Treasure–type map to real food, a survival strategy in the airport meta-world of stale Starbucks sandwiches and Bubba Gump scampi.

What’s on our 4th of July menu this year? We’re notoriously bad at planning; something tells me I’ll be picking up whatever racks of ribs our local butcher has left, on my way home from work. One thing I know we’ll have: a fresh pot of the new-crop Thai jasmine, still in its pink, dragon-insignia’d bag in the pantry. And bread? Maybe one of our friends will bring us some nice loaf they’ve baked.

Top photograph by Chris Rochelle / CHOW; rice-cooker cake photograph courtesy of Debbie Does Cakes

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.