“Wait, if you’re half-Chinese and half-white, what does your family eat at home?” I never understood why being biracial stirred up this question as often as it did. Regardless of race, didn’t most American families living in a large city like Houston find themselves eating tacos for dinner one night and then Chinese takeout for the next?
The only food my family ate consistently and in large quantities was broccoli. Flowery, cheap, and convenient, it was the vegetable most likely to accent that night’s spaghetti bolognese or homemade pork dumplings. Sometimes, my brother and I would fight over the last piece sitting on the plate at the middle of the table. Other times my mom would scold us for eating too rapaciously and not leaving her share.
My mom cooked it the same way every time. Boil it in an uncovered pot for an intuitive amount of time, ladle it onto a plate, and season it immediately with salt and pepper. When I turned ten, I was old enough to become responsible for cooking the broccoli. It took me several tries to discover that intuitive amount of time. During dinner, my brother would comment pointedly in my direction on either the broccoli’s excessive rawness or sogginess. In exchange, I’d narrow my eyes and throw him a death stare, silently warning him that with comments like that he’d better watch his back.
Broccoli first came to the United States from Southern Italy. Two brothers named Stephano and Andrea D’Arrigo shipped crates of broccoli from their native city of Messina to their new home in America. They knew there was a market for the vegetable with the Italian immigrant communities that were growing rapidly during the swinging 20s. The broccoli found in supermarkets today is the product of careful cultivation. Today, China is the largest producer of broccoli, making up forty percent of the world market.
At school, I was shocked to discover that many of my peers hated eating vegetables, especially the darker greens like Brussel sprouts, spinach, and broccoli, and that their mothers had to coerce them into eating them. In the lunch line, they would choose macaroni and cheese or apple cobbler over salad. In their packed lunches, their PB&J’s were paired with fruit roll-ups and Little Debbie’s Cosmic brownies. During afternoon story time, Mrs. Moore read us a picture book about a little boy named Samuel who didn’t want to take a bath or make his bed or eat his broccoli which he surreptitiously snuck under the table to the gaping mouth of his Russel terrier.
In March of 1990, President George H.W. Bush shared his thoughts on broccoli at a press conference covering a European policy. He proudly declared before a group of eager reporters, “I do not like broccoli, and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat anymore broccoli!” This comment was followed by a round of laughter and enthusiastic applause. And alas, I’m left knowing little about the developments in Europe, March of 1990.
In the sixth grade, I joined a junior repertoire ballet company with a girl named Candace who lived two blocks away from my house. Naturally, our mothers formed a carpool, taking turns driving us to the evening classes. Two or three of those evenings during the year, one of our mothers would be preoccupied past the usual drop-off time. Either my mother was having her semesterly staff meeting at Houston Community College, or Candace’s mother had a prolonged Girl Scout event with Candace’s younger sister. On one of the latter occasions, Candace joined us for dinner.
Candace’s mother had warned us that Candace was a picky eater, so my mother took the safe route and made spaghetti bolognese and broccoli, only chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese could have been a safer bet though far less nutritious. Between each bite, I found myself glancing to my right to see what Candace thought of the meal. But after finishing her plate before me, Candace asked if she could have more broccoli to which my mom delightedly replied, “Of course!”
My mom’s broccoli was a strange point of pride for all of us, and we would frequently cite our memory of Candace, the picky eater, asking for more broccoli to defend our love for the vegetable. In 2013, the New York Times reported on broccoli’s official “presidential comeback”. At a kid’s state dinner, an event that was a part of the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign, President Obama was asked a definitive question, “what’s your favorite food?” His answer? “Broccoli.”
Later that year, the New York Times writer Michael Moss commissioned Victor & Spoils, an ad agency, to come up with a campaign to make broccoli appear appetizing. The brightest food marketers in the business spent a week seeking out the best broccoli dishes in the country, talking to broccoli farmers in California, and sitting around the meeting table trying to find a way to sell broccoli to the American public. The ideas they came up with included making broccoli the masculine part of a weekend barbecue and pitting broccoli in a death match with kale. According to the executive of the campaign, the winner of the ideas was the “broquet”. A bouquet for your bro, but instead of flowers, a “broquet” is made of broccoli.
All this unconvincing fuss to persuade people to eat broccoli seems rather silly when I know that a bite of my mother’s broccoli would be enough to change anyone’s mind. “Americans don’t know how to cook vegetables,” my mother would say in pity. Shaking her head, she would say, “They always steam or boil with the lid on. That’s how you lose all the nutrients. And they cook them for way too long. That’s why they always come out soggy and a different color.” I thought about the evening when I had joined Candace’s family for dinner. For vegetables, her mother had reheated a can of green beans mixed with corn and carrots cut into small, soft squares. If that was all I knew of vegetables, I wouldn’t like them either.
I spent the second half of my second year in college studying abroad in Beijing, China. Without a kitchen, I ate every meal in the fluorescent, on-campus canteen. Food was served between the two hours designated as breakfast, lunch, and dinner from a dozen separate windows, each labeled with red Chinese characters. One window advertised xiao chi or light snacks. My favorite window served ma la tang, a type of Sichuan-style, build-your-own hot pot.
Beyond the windows, the canteens were filled with benches whose laminate table-tops were sprinkled with bones or egg peels from the previous occupant’s meal. One evening in the canteen, I took my bowl of ma la tang to a table with the least amount of animal remains littering its surface.
After a moment, a Chinese girl carrying a tray sat down at the table next to mine. I could see that she only had two small plates on her tray. Both plates were servings of broccoli, stir-fried with garlic.
I couldn’t help but watch as she slowly ate the broccoli over the course of an hour. She was thin, but I told myself that physical appearance is among the least accurate indicators of health. But then I thought, she didn’t just look thin, she looked fragile. Her movements were gentle and slow and deliberate, almost sickly.
I couldn’t imagine this happening in America. Not because Americans hate broccoli, but because a girl would never eat only two plates of broccoli in public. Someone would be bound to ask with exaggerated shock and concern, “Is that all you’re eating?” Even if only in his head.
I remembered all the times my Chinese relatives had commented on my size, either directly to me or to my mom. The word they use is 壮/zhuang. They say I am built very strong and muscular like my dad, as if I carry no resemblance to my thin, four-foot eleven mother. If you wanted, you could stretch the translation of zhuang into athletic, but that sounds almost like a compliment in English.
One night, I sat with my cousins and aunts and grandmother around a dinner table piled with dumplings, pan-fried fish, baijiu, and Qingdao beers. At one point during the conversation, one of my aunts made note of my brother’s slight and lanky build. Wouldn’t it have been perfect if my and my brother’s body type had been switched, she declared.
When I tell people about these comments, I add the disclaimer that it doesn’t really bother me, at least not to my core. Besides, how do I explain the complex relationship between body image, self-esteem, and gender politics equipped with my second-hand knowledge of Chinese culture and my seventh-grade level Chinese language skills. It is the same reason why my mother doesn’t bother telling her sister that smoking is bad for her or try to justify why she left behind her entire family in China.
I remembered how openly they made these comments, and I understood how openly this girl ate her two plates of broccoli. Had her aunt told her she looked zhuang? Didn’t she know she made me think of the upstart model I had seen on ABC News who ate broccoli and carrots to feel full?
Tonight, I come home to broccoli and leftover spaghetti bolognese. I place the leftovers in the microwave, and then I place a pot of water on the stove. I listen passively to the sound of the gas stove turning on, a combination of a clacking and a ticking, maybe tacking. I wait anxiously for the bubbles to rise out of the water. Finally, a pocket of air surfaces. I play with fire to pass the time, turning the heat higher and lower to watch the speed of bubbling change immediately in response.
I pour the washed and cut broccoli into the pot. I leave it in for an intuitive amount of time. I ladle it onto a plate, and I season it immediately with salt, and then pepper.