Life Lessons From Mama’s Kitchen

My guest today is Johnny Tan, author of From My Mama’s Kitchen: food for the soul, recipes for living. Welcome, Johnny.

Tell us, what inspired you to write this book?

First and for most, thank you, Heidi, for giving me this opportunity to share From My Mama’s Kitchen with you and your fans.

In November 1999 my mom was leaving after staying with me close to 6 memorable months. During my mom’s visit I came to realize that, after celebrating her 71st birthday, she was growing old and that her traveling days might be numbered.

Since I love her cooking very much, and the thought of not having her being able to come to the United States as often as she did, gave me an idea that I better start writing down all of the recipes of my favorite dishes.

So, I decided to put together a cook book titled From My Mama’s Kitchen – food for the soul, recipes for living for my sister and me, and honoring my mom at the same time as well, by remembering the various wonderful moments we have spent being in the kitchen over the years.

Several months went by, and another thought came to mind, well since I am recording all these wonderful recipes, why not include some other wonderful recipes I like from other women who I have gotten to know as my other moms, while living in the United States?

So, I pitched this idea to them and they were very supportive of my project. Several months, and then years went by, and for one reason or another I could never get it off the ground.

I have always felt that there was something missing from the project. The intent was there, but I could not really get it started, as if the timing wasn’t right.

Finally, in January of 2007, Carol, my 90-year-old Italian foster mom called me up and asked me if I was going to get it done before she died.

I told her, yes, and as a matter of fact, I was planning to get started that April. I had already prayed about it, and I had scheduled myself to write at least a couple of hours every night starting on April 1st until I got it done.

Needless to say, my prayer was answered as I was spiritually inspired to write about this not so secret – secret, “Unconditional Motherly Love” instead of food recipes. I finished writing the book in 9 months.

This all came about because I realized that “Motherly Love” is the common denominator that connected me to all of these wonderful women.

Mothers certainly are an inspiration to us and food has always been a focus for social interaction. As you were growing up, did you realize the importance of time in the kitchen with your mother or did this wisdom come later in life?

Although I did spend some time in the kitchen with my mom during school holidays while I was growing up, it was much later in life that this special bonding between my mom and I occurred.

I could remember calling my mom on the phone and having her walk me through cooking a specific dish many evenings when I got home from work. The time difference between us is 14 hours and this made it perfect for both of us to talk on the phone. I am in Baton Rouge, Louisiana cooking dinner at 7 – 8 pm in the evening, and she is in Melaka, Malaysia, refreshed and ready to chat at 9 – 10 am in morning.

Why the nine “moms” in your book?

I was adopted at birth in Malaysia by my Malaysian Mom, and then when I came to the United States in the Spring of 1980 to go to college at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I met my late Southern Belle Mom as she was the host family for me.

Later that summer, I met my Italian Foster Mom in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. I was invited for a visit by her late husband Ben, who I met in Seoul, Korea while flying to the US.

I met my next three moms when I started working.

My late Sanguine Savannahan Mom and I met in October of 1985, when I was on a business trip to Savannah, Georgia.

My Texan Earthly Mom and I met in 1986, when I engaged her employment agency to recruit managers for the company I was working for, at that time.

And, I met my late Spiritual and Progressive Mom at a business meeting in Hammond, Louisiana in the Spring of 1987.

I met my last three moms during my leisure time in the ballroom dancing community.

My late Ballroom Instructor Mom taught me ballroom dancing in 1996, when ballroom dancing wasn’t cool for the younger generation!

I met my German Mom in 1998 at a ballroom show dance, where we had both performed with our respective teachers.

And finally, my Cajun Mom and I first met when we danced the jitterbug/swing at a ballroom dance event in the fall of 2000 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Collectively these wonderful women helped me to decipher the various mysteries of living as my teachers, coaches, and counselors.

I loved what you wrote about “designing life is very much like preparing to cook a meal.” Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, successful people often use the phrase “designing one’s life” in expressing themselves whenever asked, “How did you do it?” From my various moms’ perspectives, designing one’s life is very much like preparing to cook a meal.

According to them, the secret to a delicious dish is not in cooking it, but rather in the hours of prepping it. It is in these hours of preparation that the mind lovingly creates the dish and anticipates all the possible scenarios that may pop up unexpectedly during the cooking phase. If by chance something unexpected occurs, they are fully prepared to apply their intellectual knowledge to find solutions to go with the flow and still end up with a wonderful mouth-watering dish.

After spending time cooking with my mom, I soon realized that the truly delicate part of determining the success of each dish is strictly governed by the degree of detail that goes into prepping each ingredient.

I learned that sometimes in life, when solving the most difficult challenges, I need to be patient and fluid. I cannot rush or cut corners. Everything has its own time, and the more thorough and focused I am, the easier it is for me to achieve the desired success.

I also like your mother’s saying, “No matter how much formal education you have, no matter how much material wealth you have accumulated, I will always have tasted more salt of life than you have.” How do you think mothers can impart this “salt” to their children without resentment?

I believe with effective communication and respect any message and word of wisdom can be imparted regardless of whether it is coming from the mother to the child or in reverse.

The most important thing we need to understand is that when we approach each other with “unconditional love” which is “God’s love,” then we know that the intent is always for our highest good.

You describe the many roles mothers play in our lives. What are they?

Our mothers are actually our teacher, our coach, and our counselor. Initially, they may not realize this about themselves; however, situations that affect our daily lives will soon draw these various roles out of them in time.

As a “child student” we, however, will not realize this until we finally have the humbleness to acknowledge that we actually don’t know it all! For some of us this may come early in our life, but for others it may take decades.

Did you make a love of food preparation into a career for yourself?

I do enjoy cooking very much. Although my cooking interest began out of the necessity to feed myself during my college years, I view it as a wonderful activity that challenges me to be creative, patient, and thorough.

It is also my personal outlet for a “rest and relaxation” time, resulting in giving me a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I have the ability to cook very well.

You’ve included a recipe from some of your “moms” in your book. Does each one evoke a special memory or bond with that woman when you prepare or eat it?

Yes it does. As you know, the kitchen is the heart and soul of every home, and I have been very fortunate in my life to have the opportunity to break bread with my various moms over the years. It will always be something I will treasure and hope to pass some family traditions on to the next generation.

What does the future hold for you—are you working on another book?

Writing this book has been a wonderful and humbling experience for me. I truly enjoyed reflecting back on the various heart-felt moments. My goal for this year is to bring “motherly love” to the national center stage.

This is my first book, and I have trademarked the title phrase “From My Mama’s Kitchen.” For the immediate future I do plan to write two more books.

I also have a weekly FMMK Talk Radio show on the internet showcasing ordinary people, especially moms, doing extraordinary things to make a positive difference in our community.

I have started an in-house 9 by 9 charity program where 9% of the sale of my books goes to 9 different charities in 9 different communities. This year, our charities are Battered Women Shelters in the 9 different communities my various moms and I have lived.

I am doing more speaking engagements this year. Anyone who is interested in having me come to their community or organization can get all the information they need and get in touch with me through my website www.frommymamaskitchen.com.

My vision and mission is to bring Motherly Love, which is God’s Love, to the global center stage.

Johnny, Thank you for sharing From My Mama’s Kitchen with us.

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Published in: on April 9, 2010 at 9:06 pm  Comments (12)  
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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a lovely man. With Mother’s Day not far off, this gift would be a good gift, wouldn’t it? Thanks, Heidi for bringing Johnny Tan’s work to our attention.

  2. Hi Mary, I hope all is well with you today. Thank you for your kind words and great suggestion. My book is actually designed as a keepsake. It has a dedication page in the front and also some blank “recipes for living” pages towards the back of the book before the food recipes section for you to record down some of your favorite or theirs “recipes for living” to further personalize the book.
    Have a great day.

  3. A very compelling interview! Thanks, Johnny and Heidi. It made me want to go try one of my late mom’s recipes.

  4. I have several of my mom’s recipes that she made for holidays or special occasions, and whenever I use them, I remember some of those good times. I think it would be wise to write this down!

  5. This guy is so lucky for having so many positive, influencial, and loving women in his life. I’m curious as to the types of recipes that are included with this book. Do they reflect the cultural background of the moms who prepared them (Italian, Texan, Southern, etc.)? It looks like a sweet keepsake.

    • Yes, Christina, they do, from Wiener Schnitzel to Malaysian Chicken and Quail Eggs Curry. I would’ve liked more recipes in the book, but the insights the author learned through this connection with his “moms” is an interesting read.

  6. How great to have so many moms, especially moms that can cook well! I like that all your moms add such international flavor to the book.

  7. Hi Dana, thank you for your kind words. Although I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to cook with my various moms, and eat and enjoy the variety of foods from different cultures, what I treasure most are the many words of wisdom my various moms imparted to me, as they continually serve as wonderful nourishment for my soul and spirit. Have a great day.

  8. What a wonderful way to honor the women in your life and the art of cooking as well.

  9. Johnny, what a wonderful tribute to all the mom’s in your life! I wish you tons of success with this and all your future writing projects.

    Heidi, thank you for introducing us to Johnny!

  10. Hi Kathy, thanks for your comment. As you know the kitchen has always been the heart and soul of every home. I am thankful that I was spiritually inspired to write about it, and the many wisdom and blessings I have received from it with the aid of my various moms. Have a great day.

  11. Hi Darcia, thank you for your kind words and well wishes. I am very thankful for all the support I have received thus far. It has been an incredible experience for me writing and publishing this book, and I am looking forward to the future with great anticipation. Have a great day.


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