For lunch today, I had some steamed spareribs over rice. The ribs have been in my fridge for over a week—and not a word from you, food-safety hardliners. My stomach’s not just fine. It’s also full, and so is my heart. My mother cooked these ribs when she was visiting, and they were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
I don’t know how to make ribs like my mom’s. Part of it is, I think, that something tastes better when someone else has cooked it, and that’s especially true if that someone else is my mother, by far the best cook in our extended family. I love my grandmother, but anything she may try to tell you about those culinary genes being passed down is a lie.
Another part of it is her secret sauce, some elixir containing Shaoxing wine, black-bean sauce, salt, white pepper—maybe sesame oil? I can’t remember. I’m sure she has told me before. “It’s easy!” I hear her say. She would probably add that, as usual, I just wasn’t listening. I could ask her for a more precise recipe, but she’d just sigh. She has almost no recipes written down—they’re all in her head.
A third part of it, though, was something that has nothing, really, to do with the food itself so much as what the food represented. Last winter, she emailed me to ask whether I might like for her to come to New York “and cook a dinner for you for your birthday.” When I read her words, my heart leaped into hyper-speed and I broke out into a sweat. She hadn’t been to visit in years, not since my boyfriend and I moved together and not since that boyfriend became my husband. She had met him only once, and that meeting was, to be generous, awkward. She didn’t come to our wedding, but some months later, she sent that email.
Food is, in our family, so many things. It is what we fight about; we started taking cruises together partly because there isn’t any argument about where to have dinner. It is our most beloved group activity; one of the indelible memories of my childhood is sitting in my aunt and uncle’s laughter-filled kitchen in Hong Kong, late one sticky summer’s night, a plastic sheet on the table covered by a quickly shrinking mound of fresh lychees and a quickly growing pile of peels and pits. It is the thing we can always talk about when we have nothing else. If I am at a loss for something to say to my mother, I can always ask her—and genuinely, because I always want to know—how to cook a particular dish of hers.
For my mother, food plays a specific and important role, saying things that she cannot. Even the paraphernalia of mealtime has significance. When she arrived in New York, one of the first things she did was to pull a gift out of her bag: an antique pair of ivory chopsticks. Everyone in our family has a pair, inscribed in red with our names. These were for my husband. She told him that it was my job to figure out where to get the inscription done. I reminded her that it was also her job to help me come up with a Chinese name for the white boy.
Also note that she never asked if she could come visit; the question was whether I wanted her to come cook a dinner. We took her for other meals while she was in New York—Koreatown, where she happily picked at a whole fried fish; dim sum in Brooklyn Chinatown, where her face radiated delight at a simple plate of fish balls; our friend Adam’s restaurant, Lunetta, where she dove into a huge and fragrant bowl of mussels. But those other lunches and dinners were appetizers and desserts. This trip was about one meal.
Eleven friends joined us, dear and patient people who have played their own supportive parts on our journey and who knew that this meal wasn’t just about the food. That Saturday, it turned out that my mom had prepared a dish for each one of us. At 5:30pm, they began coming out of the kitchen: first, the starters—freshly griddled scallion pancakes, spring rolls, and seaweed-wrapped sticky-rice balls with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp. Then, the mains: Scrambled egg and tomato—always a homey crowd-pleaser. A half-dozen types of mushroom, braised with abalone. Big piles of Chinese greens, dressed simply in oyster sauce. Slivers of pork tossed with crisp triangles of two kinds of tofu. Two chickens, one steamed and one poached in soy sauce. Shrimp stir-fried with a multicolored medley of vegetables. Two whole black bass, steamed with ginger and green onions. A beef stew, with big, gooey chunks of tendon. Those spareribs.
This was her gift, her gesture of lavish love, her way of saying that she’s trying. She started cooking more than twenty-four hours before the first guest arrived, standing and stirring and chopping and tasting until her arms and legs ached and her own appetite was gone. She wanted nothing more than for us to stuff ourselves silly—to simply receive.
Where do we go from here? I don’t know. It was one visit, one big meal and several smaller ones. We ate well. We were all on our best behavior, and we got along. There was some laughter. Nobody cried. It doesn’t mean that we agree on theology or politics or that she’s going to run for president of her local chapter of PFLAG. It means she’s working hard—and so are we—to love as best we know how. In some ways, it was a big event. In others, just baby steps.
There is, I suppose, a lesson in the way she cooks, something that I want to try to remember as we keep walking forward alongside each other: In my mother’s kitchen, nothing happens quickly. You plan. You marinade. You stew. You wait.
Then, eventually, you feast.