Sunday, October 27, 2013

No Chopstick Snobs Here

When Lisa See sat down to write Shanghai Girls, she surely drew upon her immigrant parents' stories, rich material that schooled her in the dialects and the varied quarters of the city and the complications of bound feet.  She must have been one of those good children who want to hear the old stories again and again. 

How else could she make it sound so real? 

Then I checked her picture on the back of the book jacket.  I expected shiny black hair and high cheekbones.  Instead, I found myself staring at a woman with auburn hair and round eyes.

Which makes her novel all the more remarkable an achievement.   Her body of work captures the culture so well that the Organization of Chinese American Women recognized her as their 2001 National Woman of the Year. 

"We are kaoteng Huajen--superior Chinese--who follow the religion of ch'ung yang:  worshipping all thing foreign, from the Westernization of our names to the love of movies, bacon, and cheese," explains Pearl, the narrator of Girls.  Pearl and her sister, May, enjoy the run of the city, traveling to the neighborhoods that resemble Paris and modeling for the "beautiful girl" calendars that advertise wine, soap and cigarettes.

But then their daddy can't pay his gambling debts.

His solution?  Arranged marriages.  Oh dear.

Let's stop a moment and consider how we all might have ended up had our own parents had their way in matrimonial matters. 

Arranged marriage seems to depend on who your parents know and respect.   Mine knew a lot of farm boys.  One of my sisters went out with a son of the land, a boy who surely knew how to bale hay, set irrigation pipes and rise early for the morning milking.  Maybe he even had some nice farm-boy muscles.  But never mind that.  This isn't what parents look for, is it?

So they could have cast their eyes round about their wider circle, seen this young man and decided he would do. 

That he boasted of killing mice with his bare hands would not have bothered them at all.  But once my sister heard his mouse story, she was in a hurry to get home.

Mom and Dad urged another sister toward a confirmed bachelor, a middle-school gym teacher who could not look a girl in the eye.   "All he needs is a good woman.  Could really set him straight."

Like marriage is a field on which to exercise your humanitarian impulses.

Anyway, back to May and Pearl.   Once they get husbands and come up with a plan to escape the yuckier parts of the deal, war intervenes.   And our story takes off at a gallop.

I haven't finished it yet, but I eagerly await the next fifty pages of surprises.

On a side note, May and Pearl end up working at a tourist attraction, serving "Chinese" dishes that they never heard of at home.  Yeah, I know the menu at your local Ho Wah Buffet probably isn't all that authentic.  But given the choice between pickled eggs, or crisp-fried eel and the fake stuff, I'll take the fake.

I spent a summer waiting tables at my hometown's "Chinese" dive, the Golden Pheasant, and couldn't understand the appeal of the chow mein or the egg foo yung that I carried out of the kitchen all night long.   Ever tasted canned chow mein?   It's one of the world's least exciting foods.

But I got hungry by the end of the shift.  And the carton of leftovers was free.  And it was remarkably tasty, nothing like that canned stuff.  So there I'd be, counting my tips at 2 in the morning, munching on the chicken and onions and celery.

I found a chow mein recipe (in the same cookbook as Bye-Bye Nesquik's flagship dish, Chocolate Marshmallow Pudding) and played around with it until I got that slightly sweet Golden Pheasant taste.  Works for me, but then I'm not snobbish about my Asian food.


1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 TB vegetable oil
2 cups diagonally sliced celery
3 medium onions, sliced
3/4 tsp. salt
2 cups water
1 TB brown sugar
1 TB soy sauce
3 TB flour
1/2 cup cold water
1 (16 oz.) can assorted chop suey vegetables
4 to 5 cups chow mein noodles 

Cut chicken into thin strips. Saute' for 5 min in oil, until delicately browned.  Add celery and onions and cook 2 or 3 minutes longer until slightly softened.  Add salt and 2 cups water; cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.  Add brown sugar and soy sauce; whisk together flour and cold water until smooth.  Stir into chicken/celery mixture, bring to a boil and cook until thickened.  Add drained chop suey vegetables and continue cooking until thoroughly heated.   Serve over chow mein noodles.  YIELD: 5 servings, 410 cals. ea.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Not to Kill Off Characters

A postmistress withholds letters that pass through her hands, changing the lives of the citizens of her Cape Cod town.

That's the promise dangled before readers of Sarah Blake's The Postmistress.   What a tempting story! I said as I opened Blake's book.

Trouble is, she didn't keep her promise.   I'll admit that I kept turning the pages, hungry to know what happened to the three stars of her tale.  But I put up with a heap of overwrought prose ("Darling!" says the newlywed doctor, rushing back to his petite wife when he really should be getting out to that mother in labor),  a helping of improbable plot points ("The war has broken me!" says the female reporter, who then goes about acting quite unbroken), and a big smack of unintentional humor.

We find that humor in death.  Postmistress is set at the beginning of World War II.  All of England hides in cellars and bunkers as Luftwaffe planes buzz overhead.  America debates with itself whether to lend a hand.    Somebody dies.  You would expect as much, this being a war story and all.  And the possibilities for killing off characters in a war book are rich and varied.  But Blake chose to . . .

Well, let me put it this way.  Suppose I set a story in a steel mill, one rife with labor troubles.  If I need a death, I can make a bridge beam fall on the foreman.  Or I can send the idealistic hero down a dark alley where he meets three looming shadows, one of whom carries a steel pipe.  And let's not forget the morbid possibilities in a molten vat of liquid iron.  There's a screaming way to die, oh yes.   So why, with all these choices at my fingertips, do I make the secretary die from a bad baloney sandwich? 

Yes, when Blake killed off Character X, it felt like Billy Crystal photo-bombing a Lifetime Movie.

And the postmistress got less time on stage than the war reporter.  

But I hung around, even if my patience wore thinner with every passing chapter.

Another funny thing:  I was more than eager to get my hands on a new story, having spent so many weeks laboring through Anna Karenina (where, by the way, every single word and gesture of every single character rang true, and the translators kept the prose as clear as water).  So I open up my new book and what do I find?  One of the characters reading Anna K

With such reading woes, I'm lucky I get to eat the yummy Turkey Broccoli Hollandaise this week:

I shall be very happy lifting a forkful of this to my mouth.  Unless, of course, I choke on a chunk of turkey, or mortally cut myself opening the can of french-fried onions, or slip on a squashed floret that has dropped to the floor, or . . .

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Standing on Top of Mt. Tolstoy


THE BOOKMARK (that thin thing near the back cover).

Abbey says this is a mouthful.  

'Nuff said.

Now, let's wrap it up with  Gourmet Deli Turkey Wraps.

 Maybe you to leave out the bleu cheese.  I left out the walnuts.  No harm either way.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I’m skulking. 

I’m sitting in my darkened car on a cul-de-sac in my neighborhood, cornfields on the left, fine, 2700- square foot homes with Halloween decorations on my right.  I'm just waiting around here.  

The woman who lives at the end of the street says a certain cat’s been coming around every night, sneaking in her garage, eating her own cat’s food.  It looks suspiciously like the cat in the pictures posted all around the neighborhood for the last two weeks. 

Those would be pictures of Bye-Bye Nesquik’s lost Daisy. 

Emma and I sat in this cul-de-sac for more than four hours last night.  No sighting.  Maybe we can blame the persistent rain. 

Jim calls us Cagney & Lacy.  I tell ya, these stake-outs are considerably more boring than on TV.  

Tonight the weather is clear, and I’m holed up solo until 1) the computer battery runs out; 2) the phone batteries—all three of them—expire; and 3) until my contacts bother me so badly that I won’t be able to tell the difference between a cat and a leaf. 

Oh, and here comes a neighbor with a flashlight.  He wants to know what I’m doing on his street.  Just being a cat-lady, that’s all. 

It would be nice if I could knock off another hundred pages of Anna Karenina while sitting here.  Hard to read in a dark car though.   I may or I may not find myself making a Sunday Kindle purchase in the next few hours.    

If it weren’t so nippy, I’d be sitting outside in one of those handy fold-up-take-to-the-park chairs.   But our faux summer seems to have left us.  In honor of the newly-crisp weather, we’ll be eating
Chunky Veggie Chowder this week.  It’s one of those soups that tastes even better the second day.  So get out your veggie-cutting knives, loosen up your soup-stirring wrists and enjoy!

Note: 12:30 a.m.,  cat spotted, but it doesn't look like mine.