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Warmly seasoned, sharply observed . . . If food, with its attendant emotions and symbolism, is at the heart of the book, it is just one layer in a very rich composite.
Warmly seasoned, sharply observed . . . If food, with its attendant emotions and symbolism, is at the heart of the book, it is just one layer in a very rich composite.
When we were little, my mother thought of a uniquely devious way of getting my sisters and me to eat our dinner. It was usual at that time (the 1950s) for mothers of small children who were dilatory at the table to employ the classic admonition, "Just think of the starving children in China." Or India. Or Africa.
My mother told us a story instead.
The story was based on an incident that occurred in the late 1940s, when my family was living in China and my sisters and I were too young to recall. My father, freshly graduated from the University of Chicago, had been summoned back to China by his father, Li Zongren, who had decided to run for the vice presidency of Nationalist China. He felt that his son's knowledge of communications and technology would benefit his campaign, headquartered in polyglot Shanghai. He also wanted to meet his American daughter-in-law, Genevieve - truncated to a more pronounceable Jenee for his benefit - and his two American granddaughters: Marcy, three years old, and me, half that age. Two more granddaughters would follow in fairly rapid succession: Wendye, born in Shanghai, and Gerrie, in Hong Kong.
My parents set up house in Shanghai's French Concession,where one evening, as they were returning home from a night out with friends, my mother noticed three beggars dressed in rags squatting by the roadside. They were poking at the contents of two tin cans - one in its original shape, the other flattened out into a serviceable pan - cooking on a small brazier. Inside the taller receptacle was freshly boiled rice with a blanket of cabbage leaves, wilted from the steam. In the ersatz frying pan, several stones sizzled in a dollop of oil. The men paid no attention to my mother, or to anyone or anything else for that matter. They filled their bowls with the rice and cabbage, placed a stone or two on top, and began, lustily, to eat.
"They were so poor," my mother told us, her voice betraying both sympathy for the men and gentle reproof toward her daughters, "they had only a bowl of rice and a few cabbage leaves for dinner. Instead of meat they had to fry stones for something savory to eat. They sucked on that hot, oily, salty stone, spat it out into their bowl, ate another mouthful of rice, then picked up the stone again with their chopsticks and sucked on it some more, until all the rice and cabbage were gone. Imagine! Sucking on stones!"
Now, I was old enough to know what plain stones taste like: bland, perhaps only slightly bitter, and, no matter how well you rinsed them, gritty. And I was young enough that frying stones in oil - peanut, of course, with some shredded scallion, slivered gingerroot, and minced fresh garlic - was outside the range of my experience or abilities. My mother's rationale in telling us that story was to make us appreciate the bounty before us, to shame us into finishing the food that lingered on our plate. But, my not being an adult and never having sucked on fried stones, the anecdote worked somewhat differently in my child's mind. I did indeed imagine it: a mound, a heap, an enormous quantity of rice and vegetables ... and a single stone capable of flavoring it all. That story, recounted with an altogether different purpose in mind, had touched my imagination, which in turn stimulated my senses: my olfactory nerves, my taste buds, my salivary glands. Instead of feeling sorry for the three ravenous men, or scooping up the last few forkfuls of mashed potatoes or string beans or whatever was getting cold and congealing on my plate, I sucked hard on the virtual stone my mother had conjured and found it - just like the beggars must have found their actual ones - delicious.
A spiritual aphorism states that there are sermons in stones. But as this is a memoir, there are only stories in mine. Some of the stones contained herein may be considered the heart of the meal, as in my mother's cautionary tale. Some serve as a condiment or a table setting or the proper lighting, and come in all shapes and sizes. Massive, like the soaring limestone cliffs above my grandmother's outdoor kitchen in Guilin, China. Infinitesimal, like the grains of sand in the backyard sandbox of our suburban New York home that she usurped from its rightful owners to plant her first Chinese vegetable garden in America. Man-made, like the flagstone patio of our house against whose smooth steps she sharpened her trusty cleaver, a female Jupiter wielding her mighty thunderbolt. Symbolic, like the finger game of rock-scissors-paper that my sisters and I played with our grandfather before the cooks Regina and Aiying called us to the dinner table. Solemn, like the feng shui gravestones in front of which my father and I set out platters of pork, chicken, and fish and lit red candles and strings of red firecrackers to frighten away the hungry ghosts. Ghosts not tempted to eat stones.
Food, of course - the growing of it, the cooking of it, the people who prepared it, the people who ate it, the rituals surrounding it, the events which required it in splendid abundance - is the foundation of this book, as surely as rice and vegetables are the foundation of any Chinese meal. As for the savory stone which, if it is worth its salt, should flavor the repast from start to finish, from soup to nuts - that must be supplied by the stories themselves.
"Dessert" follows each tale in the form of a recipe or two. A caveat: these recipes will not (necessarily) help you to lose weight, lower your cholesterol, or make you fit for life. They are not for people who push the food around on their plate and peck at the edges, for devotees of cuisine minceur, for the delicate or the over-refined palate. The dragon's share of the dishes I've chosen to include draw from the vast repertoire of Chinese home cooking - daily fare, to be eaten with gusto. Most of them were prepared by my Chinese paternal grandmother, Nai-nai, or by her cooks Dashao, First Cook, and Jiunyang, in the kitchens of her various homes: those scattered across China where she ran from pillar to post to evade war and revolution; the penthouse apartment overlooking Hong Kong's racetrack; the house in Havana, Cuba, where she lived in exile for eight years while awaiting her American visa; the Dutch-Tudor house in Riverdale where she lived with my family for fifteen years; and finally the house in Guilin that she had built in 1941 as a wedding present for my parents (who, due to the Japanese occupation, never did live in it) and where I was reunited with her in 1986 and again in 1990, the year she celebrated her hundredth birthday.
A second caveat. At first sight, my mother's scant appearance in these pages might be likened to an amuse-bouche, the meal's precursor, a promise of things to come, from which she is inconspicuously absent, having served her purpose. On a deeper level, she is the executive chef of the kitchen, the power behind the scenes. She is the theater director of the noisier episodes of the drama (or human comedy), which she quiets with a minimal gesture, a simple glance. She may also be considered a deus ex machina who descends from on high in her golden chariot only when absolutely needed on earth: for the solution of intractable problems, for the smoothing of ruffled feathers, for the restoration of peace and harmony. Outwardly, she is like the most proper of Chinese children: seen (just barely) and not heard (unless rarely). Actually, she is the Taoist absence or vacuum through which everything-that-is comes into being and manifests itself as a presence. When my mother does appear in these pages, she fills them, you may be sure, but quietly, unobtrusively.
Again let me forewarn any reader expecting a traditional cookbook in these pages that the stories that precede the recipes are the meat of the meal. I also confess that a culinary memoir is an odd attempt for a novelist who has for a long time recoiled from the kitchen and everything it represents. There was a time when my revulsion to cooking went uninterrupted for years, on the verge of becoming permanent. Nai-nai, who lived to cook even more than she loved to eat, had an unwitting hand in my aversion to the culinary arts and, many years later, a similar hand in reversing that condition. But more about that later. I now hate cooking - not cooking per se, but carving out the time necessary to make a satisfying meal - only when I am writing or reading or engaged in an activity to such an extent that I loathe tearing myself away to perform something so mundane, so essential, as preparing good food to eat.
Perhaps part of my aversion, or reluctance, is that I come late to cooking, and even later to Chinese cooking. I was not one of those fortunate people who learned to cook at their mothers' - or grandmothers' or aunts' or family chefs' - knees and Garland stoves, who have since gone on to have their own syndicated food columns or open their own four-star restaurants or gourmet cooking schools. I am neither mesmerized by the dizzying array of cooking techniques, nor do I wax rhapsodic over a perfect meringue or molded pudding. I can find better things to do with my time than sleuth around the astounding proliferation of fancy food shops for the impossible-to-find (and afford) ingredient or gadget that will allow me to create the menu of the millennium or confer upon me instant dinner-party-legend status. Let others concoct "Babette's Feast" - and clean up after it. Let them eat cake. As for me, I'll take plain boiled rice any day. And now, often, I do.
It wasn't always so. I was a meat-and-potatoes girl once my family left China and we settled in suburban New York City. One of my favorite meals in those pre-calorie-and-cholesterol-counting days was fried chicken, mashed potatoes oozing creamery butter, and corn on the cob, with gobs more butter. This sublimely soporific repast, with nary a green leaf in sight, was prepared by my mother, whose one-half Chinese heritage was nowhere evident in this meal. Nor was that fifty percent apparent in any of the others she cooked for us, like her spaghetti in meat sauce, where the ground round was at least half the sauce. Or her double whammy of fried chicken and spaghetti - leftovers which, mitigated only by frozen string beans slathered in butter, produced a heart-stopping meal. Literally. It's only fair to say that my mother did not (and does not) like to cook. I should also add that, at eightysomething, her bones are those of a healthy woman of thirty and her cholesterol level is well within the normal range.
No, my mother's talents lay elsewhere, far from the kitchen range and the Dutch oven, and, in an era when not many women worked outside the home, she was able to practice them from a very early age. At four years old, she was singing and tap-dancing together with her three sisters in kiddie revues in their hometown of Minneapolis. Of the quartet, she was the sole acrobat, performer of anatomical magic. In their late teens, they appeared in vaudeville theaters all over the United States as the Kim Loo Sisters and were dubbed "the Chinese version of the Andrews Sisters." They shared marquees with Jackie Gleason, the Three Stooges, and Ann Miller. The largest was a billboard that graced Atlantic City's boardwalk: a huge blow-up of a publicity photo for George White's Scandals taken on that same boardwalk in 1939. My mother and her sisters are pictured standing in the first row wearing identical hairstyles and identical dresses, with hat, bag, and shoes to match. Besides managing their career, their Polish mother, Lena nee Wojcik Louie, also made all their clothes, onstage and off.
After all her daughters had traded two peripatetic decades in show business for sedate domesticity, my maternal grandmother opened a dressmaker shop - Kim Loo Originals - in New York's theater district. Here Nana created her signature hand-beaded gowns, cut on the bias Jean Harlow-style, for clients who were mostly singers and dancers. The suave Chinese-American dance team Wing and Toy were steady customers. Otherwise, Nana's cramped, crowded shop was anything but suave. But for my sisters and me, it was a splendiferous Ali Baba's cave which we loved to visit once we were old enough to travel downtown by subway with our mother. Behind a glass and oak counter, she ran the hat bar, where she sold chic chapeaux of her own design under the label Kim Loo Creations, while we plowed into the shopping bags and cardboard boxes that overflowed with faux diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and pearls, and secretly imagined that our lives would be just as languid and glamorous as those of the mannequins whose photos filled the issues of L'Officiel and Vogue that lay about.
When my modiste mother grew too prolific for Nana's tiny shop, her hat-making spread to our dining room table. Soon the entire room became an outpost for balsa wood heads crowned with her works-in-progress and smelled of a potent glue she used, the fumes of which could induce delirium. The dining room was her territory, but not for eating purposes. Meals were relegated to the kitchen, of which she had no wish to be queen.
In 1958 her wish was answered. Nana closed Kim Loo Originals, my mother made her last Kim Loo Creation, and Nai-nai came from China, via Havana, to live with us. My mother, who had just begun working in Saks Fifth Avenue's millinery department, gladly relinquished the reins of the kitchen and the dining room. Nai-nai was only too happy to pick them up. Our familiar dinners of fried chicken or spaghetti and meat sauce or a combination thereof came to an abrupt halt. Life with Nai-nai was about to begin. It started in our sandbox, innocuously enough.
Excerpted from Daughter of Heaven by LESLIE LI Copyright © 2005 by Leslie Li. Excerpted by permission.
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Preface: Sucking on a Stone xi
1 A Walk in Nai-Nai's Garden 1
2 Food Shame and Sand-Wishes 11
3 Chinese New Year 23
4 Three Short Fish Tales (and One Shrimp Cocktale) 35
5 Against the Grain 55
6 The Sound of One Stone Falling 69
7 Bitter Rice, Sweet Rice 81
8 In the Forest of Osmanthus Trees 99
9 Dashao 117
10 Moon Cakes, Jade Rabbits, and Elixirs of Immortality 139
11 Seated on a Stone 155
12 Juk Sing 179
13 Clear Brightness and Hungry Ghosts 197
14 The Village with No Name 219
15 Centenary 229
Afterword: If Stones Could Speak 259
Posted May 4, 2005
I liked Daughter of Heaven and would definitely recommend it to other readers. I enjoyed getting to know Li's paternal grandmother, her father, her grandfather's second wife, her mother, and the food, and significance of Chinese life here and in China. On occasion I found the juxtaposition of a recipe after an emotionally wrenching chapter a bit jarring. I have yet to try the recipes, but I plan to. And I am curious about the significance of the title. Did I miss something? The book helped me understand Li and what it meant to be a Chinese-American in the United States, Europe and China. The episode involving Li's buying two bamboo flutes in New York's Chinatown and being told by the clerk that she was like them -- empty inside, with no Chinese culture -- was especially powerful. Her odyssey has been a circular one -- away from Chinese culture and then back to it for an understanding and an appreciation. And I understood how important her father had been in shaping that journey. His verbal cruelty when she were growing up was hard to take, but somewhat mitigated by Li's travels with him to China and learning of his own odyssey. Li's book brought home once again how long a parent's reach is and how we, no matter how old, are looking for approval or deliberately challenging them. It's how most of us achieve our own identity. Few of us can simply walk away, but dealing with one's parents often forces us into a response that we then have to resolve at a later date, as Li has attempted, successfully, I'd say, by writing her memoir. For future projects, I hope Li will continue to use her own stories. They are compelling -- the conflict between two cultures and the search for self.
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Posted June 6, 2005
It is a joy to read a memoir from a gifted writer who has a surplus of wisdom, writerly skill and insight. How easy it would have been to succumb to the temptation of caricature, of victimization, of racialized literary polemic. Leslie Li has done otherwise and written a complexly textured coming-of-age account while writing about 20th century Chinese history while writing an American family melodrama. And she has done all this as a superb, and brilliantly insightful writer.
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