My mother always cooked by colour and I should have known then how important it would prove to be.
But I didn’t.
When she cooked, she’d lean over the pot in the kitchen and breathe in the rising steam, eyes wide open. She’d stir, inspecting the pot and turn around suddenly and say:
It needs orange.
Carrots. Pumpkin maybe.
Only after it looked right would she breathe in the steam again, the tensions draining away from her face, wearing a smile that said yes, this is right.
My mother always cooked by colour. I have no idea how she used colour to cook so well but the leftovers I took to school for lunch were the stuff of legend.
Singing sauces, arterial red and stews of deepest green verging on black. Aromatic cumin and lingering lemon.
Wow, that smells good.
Your mum made that?
What is it, can I try?
Oh, that’s spicy.
And, every now and then,
Ew, what’s that! You’re eating that?
I grew up here in Sydney, going to synagogue and Jewish schools.
I had Jewish friends who invited me over, expecting me to know their flavours but I didn’t.
I tasted my otherness in the alien beige of gefilte fish and kugel, the homogeneous cholent that mumbled when I’d always known stew to sing.
I tasted my otherness long before my tongue knew the words Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Long before I was even aware that my skin, my eyes, my hair, my people, are different.
We were asked to share an untold story. We were given a space to share ourselves without representing anyone and I tried. I have great travel stories. But I couldn’t extricate the colour of my skin even from those.
I would talk about when I went to Venice and an old man tried to kidnap me on the train. I would describe the countless aperitivos, the colour of the sunset, sipped sitting on bridges in the Venetian evening.
I would talk about how many times people looked at me with smiles of flame and eyes that said yes, this is right.
I would talk about the oppressive heat in Madrid, about smoking hashish and losing the ability to talk except to the ghosts of the old city. Mounds of paella, soft-toned and saffron-scented accompanied by blood-red Tempranillo.
I would talk about how many times people looked at me with smiles of flame and eyes that said yes, this is right.
I would talk about the elation of the sunrise on Masada and the grinding sweetness of slabs of halva which somehow both look and taste like earth.
Or I would talk about trekking to the lost city in Colombia, about the ceviche so fresh you could taste the lively azure ocean and the warm yellow of sandy feet and beachside bartenders.
Or I would talk making that lingering forbidden eye contact with other queer women in Cuba and the deep amber rum so fiery it made you feel like you were sipping the blood of mother earth herself.
People all over the world have looked at me easily and welcomed me either as a local or close enough. But not here.
You see, I hold an ember in my mouth and I lick my lips with tongues of flame which only grow stronger every time I’m asked: Hey, where you from?
Because here, I’m permanently other.
Even within the already othered Jewish community, I’m exotic, I’m spicy.
I’m something you’d read on a menu.
I’m something my mother would cook.
My mother always did cook by colour. I have no idea how she used colour to judge a dish. I have no idea how people do the same with other people.

(This article was originally delivered as a speech at a FOJAM event in July 2020: www.fojam.com)

(Check out Liv’s website, Medium blog, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.)

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Liv Steigrad
Liv Steigrad is a Sydney based storyteller, copywriter, and handstand enthusiast. She’s passionate about creating a space for young LGBTQ+ creatives.

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