What she made
We are in the corner of the kitchen, at the threshold of a pantry that opens into the dining room. We are standing in front of the window, in a wash of sunlight. She is holding a porcelain bowl.
She wets the edges of the wonton, then, laying it in the hollow of her hand, snatches up a bit of filling with her other hand and nestles it into the wrapper.
I cannot recall the movement of her fingers as she closes the dumpling—I know that it is mechanically elegant, but I can’t discern the mechanism, except for a single idle flick of the tip of her finger.
When it is done, they stand in a cluster on a plate, each perfectly round, stout, and folded in on itself like a peony.
The stove is old, I know, even though I am young. She lights the burner with a match. I can hear the flame snapping like a flag.
I remember the insistent popping of oil in the wok as it smokes, and the sweet pungency of onions just as their very edges begin to blacken.
The smell of raw beef is a clean, iron tang. She slides it into the wok and it roars. It only takes a few seconds, and suddenly the air is full of dinner. Every dish is so fast: smoke, charred alliums, and the aromatic transformation of the raw into the cooked.
She goes to Chinatown and buys frozen dumplings—“wor hep”, in our dialect—in bulky clear plastic bags. Seven dollars for fifty, fourteen dollars for a hundred. The wrappers are sturdy and thick—there should be no delicacy in a pot sticker.
With six boys in the house, she can cook fifty just for lunch. She boils a huge pot of water and drops them in, still frozen, in batches. Once they float, she pulls them out and places them firmly in the wok, shimmering with oil, and leaves them there for what feels like far too long.
When she plucks them out with chopsticks, they never stick. A well-cooked dumpling has the crust and bulk of a sourdough boule. It is like a sculpture. Its aroma is of boiled and fried dough, mostly, and just barely savory.
She brings them by the bowlful to the table, where we sit in narrow-backed vinyl chairs. The windows of the dining room open onto a narrow alley, so it is always dim. There is a couch under the windows where I sometimes sleep when the entire family has come to visit; it opens into a bed, and I play with my Transformers there. In the corner, there is a stack of Danish cookie containers and two folded fleece blankets. Along one wall is a cabinet full of china and a cuckoo clock that is never wound; she always sits at that end of the table. The wall to her left has two photographs on it: one of my grandfather and his family—he is my age in the photo and wears a suit; another of my great-grandfather, who resembles, in his gentle resignation, my grandfather. My father always sits underneath the picture of his father. Sometimes my grandfather sits next to him, under the picture of his own father, and sometimes he sits at the head of the table facing my grandmother, where I am sitting now.
I eat the dumplings twelve at a time, steaming hot, taking great care not to burn myself as the juices come boiling out.
It is the New Year, and she has cut oranges. She has asked if we are hungry, and I simply smile at her; she brings the orange slices to the living room without waiting for an answer.
New Year’s oranges are thin-skinned. They are not particularly beautiful to look at, but the pulp is unusually sweet and delicate. I remember them always being cold—oranges are always best when they are cold, and the sweetest oranges are the most tolerant of winter.
The segments of an orange are properly called “carpels”. Sometimes, I peel off the faintly bitter, fibrous skin of the carpel and eat the pulp in tiny, citric bursts of juice. At other times, I pull the entire carpel from the skin of the orange with my teeth, popping the seeds out of my mouth as I find them.
She, my father, and my aunts speak in Chinese while my brother and I sit on the floor and eat all the oranges. We place whole segments in our mouths, skin-out, and smile broad orange grins at each other, laughing every time.
When I am thirteen, we are living in Oklahoma, and she flies with my grandfather to visit us, carrying a cooler full of food from Boston’s Chinatown. I have no idea how she has brought this on the plane. When she opens it, the living room is suffused with the fragrance of lotus leaves and sticky rice, steamed pork and egg buns, glassy egg tarts, an entire box of shiny baked roast pork buns, piles of almond cookies.
We eat it all, ravenously, at a picnic table in the backyard, the sound of locusts in the air. It is my only recollection of their visit.
She has made a feast for the New Year, entirely on her own. The dining room table is arrayed with foods I eat only once a year: bitter melon, a whole chicken with its head still on, glassy sai fun noodles, and a steamed ground pork dish that is my father’s favorite.
Everybody is here, and we eat at two tables—the six grandchildren at a long folding table, just a foot or two from the main table; there is hardly any room to move, but nobody is moving anyway. When I am still a child, I sit at that table, facing my father as he passes platters of food to my grandfather, who takes his portion first; he particularly likes the bitter melon, and eats in silence.
There is a huge rice cooker on the desk squeezed into the corner by the couch. She glows as I eat bowl after bowl of rice, tells me that it will make me strong, that I am a good boy. Fifteen years later, I will visit Boston on my own and meet her and my two cousins at the China Pearl. At nine o’clock, we will be alone on the third floor. She will order a banquet for the four of us, enough food for twelve people—pork, beef, chicken, noodles, greens, soup, a whole fish, two whole lobsters. Halfway through the meal, as I fill my bowl with rice, she will scold me: “Too much rice, eat more meat.” I will realize, only then, that she didn’t escape from China—the oldest daughter of a proud family of academics, married off to the son of a merchant in America; who walked miles and miles from her village to Toisaan carrying my father, eventually managing to get herself to Hong Kong; who boarded a plane to London and, unsure which plane was bound for Boston, followed two students to another flight that took her to New York; who spent a terrifying month at Ellis Island with my father; who was somehow, in this age before Facebook and cell phones and databases, found by my grandfather and brought back to Boston; who worked seven brutal days a week washing and steam-pressing the clothes of white, working-class families in North Cambridge; who bought a home and raised three children in that laundry; who, with the help of local resident Tip O’Neill, would gradually bring almost her entire family to America; who, when the laundry was sold, worked in a belt factory; who, by the time I was a child, seemed to know so many people on the streets of Boston’s Chinatown that I thought she was its mayor—for me to forgo the beef.
At New Year’s meals, my grandmother spends the entire meal cooking and barely eats with us, sitting down to dinner only after she finishes the last dish. She takes her seat at the head of the table, and my father and aunts stay there to talk to her while she eats, while the children play Nintendo in the living room.