I firmly believe that some people become artists purely so they can draw portraits of their beloveds. The urge to render the image of a loved one is strong, whether it be in doodle, paint, or photograph, or whatever medium a talented individual chooses to make their own.
In Cynthia Chen McTernan’s case, she made her child into a cookbook. A Common Table (Rodale Books, 2018) is the first book from the creator of the popular food blog Two Red Bowls. A Common Table is apparently crafted in the image of her baby Luke, whom she describes as “embody[ing] the spirit of the book I wanted to write.” McTernan’s husband is a Korean-Irishman raised in Hawaii, and McTernan herself is a Chinese woman who grew up in the South. While it is impossible to say what Luke looks like from that description, it’s intriguing to wonder what dinnertime at their house is like.
Luckily you don’t need to, because McTernan has turned her blog into a book, or rather, a “journal of the food that I make for our little family, reflecting the myriad cultures and influences that make us who we are.” The recipes themselves are mostly straightforward and comfortingly homespun; this is not a book of culinary chimeras or sake-collard green fusion dishes. Some dishes are unabashedly single-origin, like potstickers or “My Great-Grandmother’s Lion’s Head Meatballs,” a Shanghaiese recipe that is, you will find, surprisingly simple and can come together with items from your pantry (if you happen to keep bok choy around, that is).
Where there is fusion it tends to be subtle, as with the Sesame-Soy Savory Oatmeal or the Black Sesame Chocolate Loaf. Nutty, almost floral, and always welcome, black sesame shows up in several of McTernan’s recipes, both sweet and savory. And really, all foods are fusion foods if you go back far enough, early man having expanded his larder at every opportunity. So the idea of Kimchi-Brined Spicy Chicken Biscuits seems like something those Southern grandmas would have been delighted to make a century ago, if they’d only had kimchi.
Many of these recipes elicit a verbal “Aha!” when you come upon them, like Bulgogi Burgers, in which the ground beef is marinated in umami-heavy bulgogi sauce. A few recipes, like the obviously Southern-inflected Pimento Cheese Macaroni Salad, have a homey comfort. They’re like something your mother might have made you in your childhood, perhaps while you drew a portrait of her face in flour dust on the kitchen table.