Sunday, May 10, 2015

Chinese Family Dinners

I grew up on Chinese dinners.

Not exclusively, but recurring-ly. Three times a year my family made a pilgrimage from Utica to Queens. I was prone to motion sickness and sat holding between my knees with a yellow plastic bucket that originally contained children's blocks, lined with a plastic grocery bag for me to puke into as necessary. Upon our arrival, we stayed at the rowhouse where my father grew up, where my grandmother and grandfather resided with two dogs--a doberman-pinscher I'm fairly certain would have ripped out my jugular if given the opportunity and a calmer mutt who wandered the house in a consistent tone of melancholy and dopey confusion that suggested she felt every bit as lost as me amidst my grandmother's constant Cantonese yelling and the barking of the other dog. We spent the bulk of these long weekend trips lounging around the house, with the occasional visit to a museum or promenade down the row of discount shops on Ditmars Avenue.

And there were dinners. My grandmother cooked--flank steak and broccoli, beef spare ribs with big black mushrooms, fresh fried rice littered with cubes of char siu pork, fresh fish prepared with soy sauce and scallions. It wasn't unusual to open the fridge and find a lobster wandering inside, it's claws bound, awaiting it's execution at the hand of my grandmother's cleaver before she threw the carcass in a pot of boiling water, and later stuffed and smothered the thing with an egg-and-ground-beef sauce. My father, who ordinarily moderated portions back home, let me and my sister eat with reckless abandon.

And one night each trip, we ventured out to eat. In the early years, we drove to Chinatown proper. Later, when everyone wearied of the traffic, hunts for parking, and bustle of crowds, and after my grandmother's favorite restaurant closed, we settled for closer eats in the Chinese subsection of Flushing.

And, though I maintain to this day that my grandmother may be the most accomplished cook I've ever known, it may be these dinners out that I remember best. We'd order staples. The wide chow-fun noodles my father liked. Sweet and sour chicken and cans of Orange Crush soda for me and my sister. Roast duck and lo mein. Wonton soup that came fortified with a wide spectrum of meats and vegetables and seafood. Then there were the specialty offerings, selected via the extended family.

See my uncle Roger. From what I could gather, he'd been the victim of my father's taunting most of his life, since grade school when he was left behind a grade, and thus became my dad's classmate. Roger had stayed close to home, opened a pharmacy and bought up what cheap real estate he could find around the neighborhood, an investment that appreciated better than anyone would have guessed--my father called it dumb luck every chance he got. Roger was portly, and ordered dishes like deep-fried shrimp, saturated in a yellow mayonnaise-based sauce.

See my uncle John. He looked a lot like my father, but accordingly a couple years younger. He lived a private life in a condo an hour outside the city, but joined us once or twice a year to regale us with advice on our pursuits in the arts, and writing, and sports, and web design. He had a lot of advice, and one good concrete bit of good came out of it all it was the night he ordered General Tso's Chicken. The dish had been around for quite some time, but it never passed muster as authentic enough Chinese cuisine to land on my grandparents' radar, nor popular enough yet to take a foothold on the fledgling Chinese food scene in Upstate New York.

For the hour or two to follow, we would eat family style the way we only did on Thanksgiving back home. And we'd talk. Uncle John asking my father if he's been betting on horses lately. My aunt Peggy, Roger's wife, asking my favorite subject in school. My grandmother pointing her chopsticks and doing her best to muddle her way through asking my mother, in English, if she liked the food. This was all in contrast to home life, where my father scolded us for talking too loudly if he couldn't hear the six o' clock news, where my sister glared at him, where I scarfed down my food as quickly as possible so I could get back to the Nintendo, and where my mother silently started to drink more and more glasses of wine.

For those dinners in New York, as much as I thought my family odd for speaking in as much Cantonese as English, and as much as I was equal parts disgusted and fascinated with the tentacled creatures I'd find floating in my wonton soup--as much as it all seemed so strange--in retrospect that was my taste of the large family life: people coming together out of choice, passing dishes, swapping stories, trying, trying, trying.

When I lived alone in Baltimore, I order Chinese take out about once a month. Inevitably, I struggled to narrow my choice to just one dish and wound up with two or three--aluminum tins and paper cartons spread across my coffee table as I use my chopsticks to pluck glossy meats and vegetables saturated in soy sauce and eat until long past the point when I was full, in front of the glow of my television or laptop screen.

And I remembered.

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