Updated: Feb 29, 2020
(by Elizabeth Coo)
All food has a story. This is one of a potsticker. The recipe begins as follows:
1. Prepare your meat of choice; chop finely.
2. Wash your vegetables, haggled for and inspected properly. Only good deals allowed.* Chop well.
*Superior knowledge required. See below.
The people of 1980s Los Angeles county think they want a burger, but when they pull up to a humble mom-and-pop shop, another smell captures their senses: my Ah-ma’s potstickers. She pronounces them 锅贴 (Guōtiē), which is what she shouts to the Hispanic dim sum (點心) cart-pushers over the din of chopsticks, karaoke, and assimilation. Her broken English belies brilliance. In the eyes of her hapa (half-Asian) granddaughter, she is a great among the greatest generation.
My Ah-ma is intelligent, the granddaughter of men who placed first and third in the local examination system in Imperial China’s Jiangxi province. My Ah-ma is stubborn, the daughter of a mother who refused to have her feet bound and was “shockingly” married anyway. My Ah-ma is skilled, the oldest girl of 14 children, only six of whom survived to adulthood. My Ah-ma took care of them all. When Japanese planes flew overhead and they hid in fields, she was brave. When bombs dropped and her youngest brother flipped in his crib without waking, she found laughter. When she kissed her grandmother goodbye to board the third-to-last flight out of now-Communist China, she was resilient.
3. Prepare wrapper. Should hold portions as generous as possible without breaking.
I’ve asked my Ah-ma the story of her escape more times than I can count. Each time the timeline shifts, a new place of refuge emerges, and a new chapter is added. She is not making it up; her mind is as sharp as ever. But she story-tells like she cooks; if you’re not there to observe it yourself, you’ll never get the full story. Plus, she adds sugar to everything.
4. Add sugar.
First was Taiwan, then she took a boat past the tip of Africa. She docked in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for three years and even learned a little Spanish. Her family moved on to Brazil, but by this point it was finally time for her life to resume. At the embassy, my Ah-ma discovered Bowling Green State University, applied, and was accepted.
She flew to New York City and drove with the one uncle who was already in the United States all the way to Bowling Green, Ohio. On her first morning there, she awoke to the chirping of birds, which turned out to be the English patter of seven fast-talking American roommates. Sixty years later, she still exchanges Christmas cards with one of them. Thanks to an incompetent phlebotomist, she was inspired to become a medical technician. (And, just like an immigrant, do the job better). Somehow, in the middle of Midwest America, she found a nice Chinese boy, and fell in love. They married and moved to Chicago.
Three babies and a successful career later, she and her family are American. Her name is Margaret, her husband is John. But in 1967, John is called back to the Philippines by his family, who immigrated there when he was young. Margaret is the foreigner once again.
She adapts, as always. In short time, she makes a new set of mahjong friends. Her miscreant children make fun of her terrible Filipino and Hokkien. She makes peace with her opinionated mother-in-law, whose feet were bound (to say the least). Ah-ma raises her children, now four of them, for 13 years and cooks for them every day. When it’s time for a meal, her dinner bell is a bellow of accented English: "EEEEEat nOw".
6. Place mixture in wrapper. Seal and pinch.
7. Heat oil in the pan.
By the end, the economy’s down, children are grown, and it’s time to return to the United States. Margaret and John set up a mom-and-pop burger joint in Los Angeles. It’s hard work, no days off, the American Dream. Sometimes customers will come in and buy her potstickers instead of a burger. Little do they know how well-traveled those potstickers are.
9. Cook until crispy and golden.
One day she serves them to a beautiful white American woman who grew up thinking Chinese food came in a can. Ah-ma instinctively knows that this woman has no place in her kitchen, but an important place at her table and in her son’s heart. My mother fell in love with a short Chinese man with brains for days, non-toxic masculinity, and an amazing mother. She lets my dad teach us how to make potstickers, and she handles the meatloaf and the Christmas cookies. Her mother is a badass in her own right (pardon my language, Grandma, but it’s true) and taught her that hard work and love are the secret ingredients to success. At Thanksgiving, I am privileged to watch the three women that made me bask in mutual admiration. I’m tempted to eat my heart out, but I realize it’s already full.
10. Dump upside down onto serving plate.
Life is unexpected. It rolls you out, pins you down, squeezes you together and repeats the process until your whole world is upside down. But we are resilient. Just like cooking, joy is had when work is done. And don’t forget to add a little love. Good luck.
11. Serve when ready.