personal essay

The Pizza Sandwich That Finally Made Me Feel Like Family

published Sep 12, 2020
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For as a long as I can remember, I’ve felt different from my mom’s family. Their skin is white, my skin is not. They’re from rural areas, I grew up in cities. They owned a pet goat, I’ve only had dogs (and one snake in college). In almost every way, we’re polar opposites. When my mom was young, she was adopted by this all-white family and raised as their own near Amish country. By all accounts, we’re legally bound as relatives, even though it doesn’t feel like we’re family.

The way my mom talks about her brief childhood in South Korea has always made me feel like I’m watching a black-and-white movie. Her faint memories of the orphanage in Seoul couldn’t feel further from my life in South Florida. You would think when she got to the “I got adopted” part of the story that things would be joyous, but there was always a twinge of distance in how she spoke about her family, which made them feel even further away.

When my mom talks about her childhood food memories, they’re not about mandu or gyeran jjim: They’re filled with crispy scrapple topped with thick drizzles of molasses and cinnamon apple butter. My childhood was filled with Latinx food from my dad’s side of the family who lived nearby, so whenever I was introduced to these foods from her Pennsylvanian past, I couldn’t understand them. I would be presented with these foreign ingredients that no one I knew ate and was unable to connect with them on the plate. 

When my mom talks about her childhood food memories, they’re not about mandu or gyeran jjim.

Due to physical distance and a sometimes-turbulent upbringing, I didn’t see my family on my mom’s side that often. Whenever we did get together, they felt like strangers because I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me.

One summer, though, things changed. We rarely did family trips together, but my mom, brother, and I flew to the small town in Oregon where her parents relocated to visit for the only family reunion I have ever attended. It was the first time since I was little that my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and various cousins were all together under one roof. In total, there were about 20 of us, which is more of my mom’s family than I had seen in years. This was also during my not-so-proud chonga phase, so when I arrived off the plane, I felt like I had been transported to an alternate universe. I swapped palm trees and humidity for towering evergreens over mountainous roads and crisp, cool air. When we arrived at my grandparents’ home, everyone seemed to be wearing a fleece vest, while I was in my baggy shirt and Brazilian pants. It was a culture shock.

My family seemed to sense that I felt uncomfortable. Our differences were so obvious, and the years of infrequent communication between us had strained what little relationship was there. The first few days were isolating, but to help break the tension, the few cousins around our age asked my brother and me to play with them in the nearby creek — another foreign concept to me. With nothing else to do, we agreed.

The distance I felt between me and my family began to melt as we splashed around in the shimmering water. My cousins and I both did the same nervous giggle as we struggled to keep our balance on top of the algae-covered rocks. We each screamed a little as we fully submerged our bodies into the cold stream and smiled when we poked our heads out. And we all cheered in victory when one of them caught a crayfish with her bare hands.

Hours had passed and before I knew it, it was time to eat. I was expecting the usual foreign-to-me food, but my aunt started a fire and pulled out four unfamiliar iron squares with long rods attached at the ends. “What are these?” I asked. “These are pie irons. We’re making mountain pies,” she said, as she laid out pizza ingredients. White bread, butter, tomato sauce, cheese, pepperoni, pineapple and an array of vegetables were neatly stacked next to each other on the wooden picnic table.

Unsure what a mountain pie was, I closely observed how my cousins made them. They buttered one side of the bread and placed it on top of the open iron square. Then they stacked on whatever pizza ingredients they felt like eating; everything was fair game. They topped it off with another buttered slice and latched the top of the pie iron closed before sticking it into the hottest part of the open fire. After about five minutes, they carefully removed it from the heat and opened it to see a crisp, golden-brown pressed sandwich that was filled with a molten, gooey pizza filling. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

While I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) understand scrapple, pizza is something I knew and loved. As a then-12-year-old, I had never seen anything as beautiful or as delicious. I immediately started making my own pizza sandwich and stuffed it with all my favorites: extra sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and pineapple. I mirrored their earlier steps until I was left with a hot, golden-brown pizza sandwich. I pulled it apart and a gentle ribbon of steam danced into the air. The first bite was everything I wanted it to be. The outside was buttery and crisp, reminiscent of the best grilled cheeses I’ve had. The molten inside was saucy, sweet, and savory. With every bite, a giant cheese pull followed. It was like eating every happy childhood memory all at once. We all gleefully ate, leaving cheese trails behind; we laughed as we tried to outdo each other’s new creations. In that moment, I realized we were more similar than different; it just took (several) pizza sandwiches to help me understand that. I continued to make more until I was stuffed. 

Along with the sounds of the nearby creek rushing in the background, it’s a summer memory I have always cherished. Years have passed and I’m still quite distant from my mom’s family. But I often return to that summer in my mind and remember my family is always closer than I think.