Growing up second-generation Khmer means being used to certain things you don’t realize are different from the norm until later, after more exposure to mainstream American culture. This is especially true in the kitchen.
It was natural to me that a backyard would contain herbs and vegetables for cooking until I later realized that this was not the case in many other households. I was used to seeing whole cooked fish by the time I saw Julia Child demonstrate it.
I can’t help but compare Alton Brown’s contraption-filled cooking methods to those of my mother and grandmother. A mortar and pestle, a sharp knife of whatever shape or size, a large wooden cutting board, pots and pans of varying quality were all they ever seemed to use. And their food was always delicious.
One of Alton Brown’s episodes about cooking whole fish included an enclosure he created in order to scale the fish himself. It was a plastic tub with two arm-sized holes cut out of it where rubber gloves allowed him to slip his hands inside to work with the fish. It looked almost like an incubator for a premature infant with a fish inside it instead of a baby. The point was to keep the mess of scales in the container, sanitation being highly emphasized on his show.
I think of my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, sitting on a small, low stool in the backyard, newspapers covered with fish scales all around them, their knives moving erratically and expertly at once.
They just rolled up the newspaper and washed their hands.