Painting the Past

December 3, 2017

I haven’t always loved my mother’s cooking. In fact, I used to hate it. But memory does a funny thing, allowing the you in the present to walk back, paintbrush in hand, and color in the past, covering and embellishing as you see fit. I must want to remember always loving my mother’s cooking because the present me does now, but that may also be the consequence of living apart for seven years. Time and memory—the ultimate relationship fixer, guaranteed to soften the harder edges and round out the disagreeable aspects between any two people. Please, use responsibly.   

 

I used to sit down at the dining room table each night with dread, guarding a delicate hope: Tonight will feature something different, something delicious. As the steam rose and enveloped our kitchen, my mother would appear, a plate in each hand, making my heart flutter as I leaned over to see what was for dinner.

 

I needn’t have bothered. The plates held stir-fried wood ear mushrooms with egg, strips of pork cooked almost to leather, and a side of cold cucumber. No hope of spaghetti and meatballs, goodbye to a dream of steak and mashed potatoes, and shed a tear for the nonexistent dessert. Where other kids dreamed of gadgets and toys, these were my childhood fantasies.

 

Did I appreciate that my mother, who was working full time, came home each night to kitchen duty? Of course not. Ours was a magical dining table. We sat down at 5 o’clock, and by 5:30 the dishes appeared, like magic. I never once lifted a finger to help bring that bounty to the table.

 

I was the child of immigrants, fighting a division of cultural loyalties. I was growing up in a completely Chinese household–the language, the customs, the food–while immersed in all things Canadiana. I was not like the other kids. The families of my friends all spoke one language uniformly, no switching back and forth. During the holidays, I coveted invitations to friends’ homes; these were my tickets into the inner sanctum, the mysterious ancient traditions that are Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’d come back from my reconnaissance missions brimming with information, only to be met with local resistance. What do you mean, Mama, that you don’t like turkey? It’s Thanksgiving, Mama; we’re supposed to have turkey, and we’re supposed to be excited about it, don’t you see?

 

But she did not see, and it became my lonely mission to try and bring her to the light. Because food did not represent just a fixture of the holidays. To my young immigrant mind, it was the pillar to living the idealized Western life. With the sharpness of a homicide detective, I observed the dinner spreads when invited to dine at my friends’ homes. I watched with interest as perfect sitcom moms made perfect sitcom meals. I memorized the names of popular dishes: casseroles, meat loaf, scalloped potatoes! I dreamed of one day encountering lemon meringue pie.

 

Food was my entryway to the “normal” that I saw all around me. But my mother, bless her, had no such feelings. Even the turkey argument, dusted off and revisited each year during the holidays, did nothing to move her dial. She was stuck and so was I, but it was her kitchen. So every Thanksgiving we had duck–roasted and crispy, with pancake, scallions, and cucumbers. No turkey or mashed potatoes in sight, but with my mouth stuffed full of deliciousness, there was no room to complain.

 

As I got older, my mind expanded along with my palate, and a new narrative replaced the old one, allowing appreciation of differences to overtake the need to fit in. I was learning to love myself in my own skin, and with this realization came an overhaul of old memories to better fit this new vision. Chinese food was now hip, and I could revel in the privileged childhood of eating it every day–the real thing. It made my friends jealous, and my ego, with open arms, took it all in. 

 

Fast forward seven years, after university and a career in the big city. I’m back in the kitchen of my childhood, with a newly critical eye toward the food of my heritage—the oil content, the clearly profligate use of meat, and also is this dough gluten-free? I’m not trying to be argumentative, Mama, I just want to point out that these cooking techniques are outdated. It’s science, I can tell you all about…. Wait, what do you mean, “Get out of my kitchen?”

 

Memory, that tricky little beast. I am a modern woman, free to change my eating habits, to swap out duck for tofu, eschew dumplings for living wheat-free, turn that white rice into brown. But as much as I would like to move forward, nostalgia is a powerful rope, and it yanks you by the heartstrings. I never even liked this stuff growing up—just made up my appreciation to fit the narrative I was telling. Or did I? Everybody knows that a mother’s food is best; it’s comfort food. Whoever heard of a daughter turning her back on her own mother’s cooking? It’s blasphemy!

 

So what is the truth here? In each stage of my life, my mother’s cooking has served its purpose, whether as a steadfast reminder that I was different, a recognition that difference was not something to be hidden away, or a chance to embrace the lost side of me. I did not always love my mother’s cooking, but it has always loved me. And that is its purpose, to be more than just nourishment for my stomach but food for my heart and my soul. It is an extension of my mother’s love, and it will always ground me. Whether I want to eat it or not, whether it tastes good or not, truly doesn’t matter because in my memories, my mother’s cooking will always be the best. Simply because, it is my mother’s cooking.  

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Linda Ding's website is Mind Over Writer.

Stir-fried Tomato and Egg

 

5 large eggs

2 T. vegetable oil, divided

3 medium tomatoes (about 1 lb.), each cut into 6 wedges

salt

white rice for serving

 

Beat eggs until smooth but not frothy.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until hot.

Add eggs and cook, undisturbed, just until a thin film of cooked egg forms on bottom of skillet but most of eggs are still runny, 5 to 10 seconds.

Immediately scrape eggs into a bowl.

Heat remaining tablespoon oil in skillet over medium-high heat until hot.

Add tomatoes and cook, stirring and turning occasionally, until juices are released and tomatoes are slightly wilted but still intact, 4 to 6 minutes.

Sprinkle 1/4 t. salt over tomatoes and stir to combine.

Return eggs to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until eggs are just cooked through.

Salt to taste and serve with white rice.

 

 

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