Monday, September 12, 2011

Dried Vegetables

A June visit...

June 14, 2011

I walk in the door and hand my grandfather a bag of potatoes I bought for him at the farmers' market over the weekend. He likes the better quality produce of the farmers' markets, but he just can't bring himself to pay for it.  Turns out I forgot my notebook, so I meander into my old room and fish around in the bureau drawers looking for a pad of paper. I find my neck-gear during my search and I'm flooded with memories of having to wear it every night.  Somehow I remember more nights having to wear it sleeping at my grandparents' house, which doesn't really make sense to me because I know I only slept over at my grandparents' house when both my parents were away.

My grandmother asks if she can serve the soup now. She was looking for me. In addition to forgetting my notebook, I also forgot my camera again today.  I lament because my grandfather has made a Chinese soup he hasn't made in a while.  Grandma goes to get spoons and I hear a commotion. She tried to open the drawer he was standing in front of while he was mashing garlic.  Eventually, she comes back and sits down in front of me.

"What did you do all day?" she asks me.
"I worked."
"From when to when?"
"Eight-thirty to five-thirty."
"Every day?! Wow!"
"You used to work too," I remind her.
"But, I haven't for a long time," she says.
"I hope to say that one day too," I tell her with a smile.
"You still have the same boyfriend?"
"Yes.  You saw him on Sunday."

My grandfather asks my grandmother to help him put some food on a platter in the kitchen because she always nags him to be able to help out.  He keeps fussing over her as she scoops potato pancakes.

"You're going to get burned!" he scolds.
"I won't!" she yells.
"The pan doesn't understand what you say!" he says, urging her to push the platter further onto the stove so that it's less precarious.

With much argument, the potato pancakes get themselves onto the serving platter with my grandmother's help and we all end up at the table.  My grandfather tells me the soup is Chinese, that it has dried bok choy and water chestnuts.

"Typical Chinese soup," he says.

He tells me that he learned how to get my grandmother not to yell at him by not commenting on her constant repeating of things.

I try to make conversation and get my grandparents to talk more.  I often ask them questions that I'd think are easy, but they turn out to be more difficult than I'd imagine.  "What did you do today?" is often a stumper.  Today, I ask my grandmother what her favorite food is.

"I like all foods!" she says, smiling.

"That's not true!" I say, playfully.  "You don't like anything black. You don't like asparagus or broccoli."

"Oh yeah, I don't like the tops," she agrees. My grandfather claims that she won't eat the tops of any flowering vegetable because "a butterfly might have landed on it." He thinks she doesn't want to eat anything an insect might have touched.  I don't argue. She's been this way her whole life and this just means she'll always give me the tops, which are my favorite.

We talk about what to have next week, and my grandfather asks me if I'm tired of potato pancakes by now.

"Don't you get tired of the same thing all the time?" he asks.

I just liked picking things I thought would be easy for him to make, since dinner appears to stress him out.

"How about dofu pok?" he asks. "Dofu pok" is stuffed fried tofu.  Typically, they are stuffed with fish paste and then cooked together in a brown sauce.

I'm surprised he wants to branch out the recipes and come out of his comfort zone.  The conversation turns back to the soup, and I ask if he knows how they make the dried bok choy.  He tells me that in China, they are forced to dry their own vegetables.

"What else are you gonna do with it?" he asks me rhetorically, since they had no refrigeration and needed to be able to keep food longer.

He tells me that they put the bok choy on top of a bamboo sheet, and that other people had the vegetable hanging all over the place, like laundry.  "That's how they made shurn choy [sour vegetable]. Lay it out in the sun - that way it doesn't get all moldy. At night they cover it up and then the next morning, they turn it over.  Make sure it's good and dry.  Worst case, you have to hang it inside a warm kitchen. Good ol' days in China, no refrigerator. They depend on salt."

My grandmother adds, "People work for very cheap wages. You got a cook.  They do everything for you and you don't have to do nothing.  They're not good cooks though. Ba usually does the cooking."

"There's not much snacks around there," my grandfather says, "They would go for any kind of cookie.  In China, the only time there's good cookies is yut beng [moon cake] and candied wintermelon in lo-paw beng [literally: "old wife cookie"]."  He says they also made lotus root into a sweetened paste which is called "leen gee" and that during New Year's they make all kinds of figures, like Buddhas, out of moon cakes for the kids.

With my extreme passion for dessert making and confectionery, I'm left wondering what that must have been like, and what other hobby I might have developed.  Perhaps I'd be handing out dried vegetables at work instead?




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