Remarried, my mother closed the door to her room which suit me just fine. Weekends, she and my stepfather drove to their country house leaving me on my own. This distance was good and bad at a time in my life of pushing and pulling. I suffered as teens do, worrying about short legs, hypocrisy and belonging. I combed my hair to hide my pimpled face, leaned forward to show off cleavage in lieu of valid ID, chain-smoked and ordered cocktails in Soho bars. To strains of Patti Smith my friends and I fretted the threat of nuclear annihilation and bemoaned the impossibility of orgasming during intercourse. And then the holidays came and I got a wok. A fabulous carbon steel vessel that occasioned trips to Chinatown for hoisin, fresh ginger and fermented black beans. The whole enterprise independent from dull prying parental eyes or fraught competitive romancing and college applications.
In my mother’s kitchen the perimeter of the cutting board was supposed to contain all mess. Implements and mixing bowls were rinsed as soon as they were sullied and swiftly put away. She’d pare and trim vegetables cradled in her palm. She'd mix the vegetables with hefty chunks of meat into a battered aluminum pot to slowly break apart. Inside the pot things reduced and intensified. She simmered, adjusting the flame accordingly. She kept the lid on, barely ajar.
With the advent of the wok I learned to make symmetrical cuts. Matchsticks or dices or diagonal slices were strewn across the counter. Seasonings and sauces filled a multitude of bowls. Who knew meat’s grain should be cut against, or that embryonic corn came canned. A teaspoon of water mixed with two of cornstarch thickened sauce to silk. Balanced on a ring above the burner, blue flames licked the bottom of the wok till it was just this side of combustion. Then, diving in rapid succession, the colorful matchsticks cried out a sizzle clinging to their identities but forever changed as they Cha-chaed in the searing madcap tempest inside the open expanse of pan. Wok hay, a Cantonese term loosely meaning ‘the spirit’ or ‘breath’ of the wok infused the food with fire and steel.
That September I took the wok when I left for college and rest it wobbling on an electric burner in the dusty dormitory kitchenette down the hall from my room. Late at night as tonic against homesickness, using ingredients snatched from the cafeteria, I’d stir fry rice.
During winter-session, jonesing for the fresh vegetables I’d taken for granted at home, I badgered the dining hall chef into letting me make a vegetable dish once a week to add to the steam table line. It was a brave new world entering his kitchen on Mondays at four. The rush of clatter, the dizzying arc of the clamp-on can-opener opening #10 cans of chickpeas to curry in the 28 qt. rondeau. Chef smugly watching, Chef’s gaze burning through the back of my skull as I struggled to heft the unwieldy pan. Subsequent weeks I brought the wok and stir-fried.
Spring semester came. Even though I wasn’t supposed to I moved off-campus into an apartment a few blocks from school. In my new kitchen the wok took pride of place and feasts ensued. Multiple dishes dashed in rapid succession for clambering coeds; the choreography of feeding a crowd my dance of independence.
Arriving to Ellis Island in 1928 my maternal grandparents never learned English. My grandfather dovened with a minion of landsmen in a storefront shtiebel and manufactured menswear on the Lower Eastside. He moved his family from tenement to tenement chasing rent deals. Seven beds crammed in stuffy rooms and for extra cash cousin Marvin on the living room couch. Mom went to Brooklyn College at 15 where she excelled in math but studied education. She was shy and lived at home and took care of her mother who was dying from cancer.
I never heard the details of my parents courtship. They’d divorced by the time I began to wonder and then anything my mother said about my father was muttered under breath. When they met, my father was a rabbinical student. He was ambitious, fiery, flirtatious; my mother never understood what he saw in her. The answer is he didn’t see her, only himself in her dark sad eyes. Their marriage lasted 10 years and all that time he carried on. While my mother was pregnant with me he was already chasing the blonde shiksa who became his second wife.
I graduated in 1979 and spent half dozen years juggling being an artist with day jobs to pay the rent--waiting tables and restoring folk art. Approaching thirty and trying to be responsible I took a professional cooking course, then landed a job in a hospital cooking for a medical diet study. Working with a nutritionist in a kitchen filled with test tubes and gram scales I stumbled upon my husband-to-be, a medicine fellow studying kidneys. Our first date we went to the movies. He sobbed through the film like a baby. We went to Chinatown for dim sum. He used a knife and fork to eat a pork bun because he doesn’t like to touch food. I didn't notice he was filled with rage or that anxiety had him in a chokehold that would tighten with every passing year. We married. We honeymooned in Spain. We visited Paris. We ate at starred restaurants and drank the expensive recommendations of the sommeliers. And without questioning or hesitating, as if preordained, I pushed the wok aside for the slow-cooked braises of Cuisine Bourgeois--in other words, my mother's stews. Our marriage lasted 10 years. All the while I simmered. Inside the pot everything intensified. I kept the lid on, barely ajar.
A pot is not a harbinger but maybe it is. The way we cook, the way we organize to nourish is a window to the soul. Friends and family remind me how my mother’s eyes twinkled when she smiled. They mention her wry wit and that she listened in such a way as to make them feel special. I got a different legacy. I carry her sadness and darkness. When she is a lump in my throat I rest my hand across my clavicles and think how she pushed beyond a stifling upbringing and left a loveless marriage at a time women were stigmatized by divorce. She was brave, a survivor, but things unfolded that held her down. When she became ill it was a slow unbearable reduction. With lid ajar fleeting wisps of her escaped and dissipated. I stood by her as always. I’d like to believe she willed her death, that it was a last defiant act, but it is also true that when she died there was nothing left.
I wish for her as for myself
Lift the lid.
Raise the flame till this side of combustion.
Cha-cha in the tempest.
Fried Rice with Scrambled Eggs
American style fried rice loads on additional ingredients, making a simple Chinese solution for left-over rice into some kind of extravagance. Sometimes in addition to what I’ve mentioned here I’ll add cashews or switch it up with Thai basil, diced pineapple and a dash of fish sauce. Add whatever you have on hand—the sky’s the limit as long as it cooks quickly. The whole enterprise should be quick so that the rice doesn’t turn to mush and the vegetables retain a bite.
2-3 cups cooked rice (I prefer Jasmine)
3 t vegetable oil (divided)
1-2 cups additional vegetables including: scallion, shiitake, snow peas, broccoli, etc.
3/4 cup diced cooked meat including: pork/ham/Chinese sausage/chicken/beef/shrimp or tofu (optional)
1” knob of ginger
1 lg. clove garlic
1 smallish knob fresh turmeric
a handful of finely sliced scallion greens (use the remainder as part of the additional vegetables)
salt, pepper to taste
Cut whatever vegetables you’re using into evenly sized “matchsticks” or small pieces and set aside.
Peel ginger, garlic and turmeric, thinly slice then stack the slices and cut into fine shreds, set aside.
Break eggs into a small bowl, mix well, set aside.
Heat wok until very hot. Drizzle 2 t. oil down the sides of the wok.
Add the vegetables. Stir the vegetables so that the ones on the bottom come up to the top, almost as if you were flipping them. Continue stirring 2 minutes until the vegetables are barely cooked. If you are using a variety of vegetables, stager how you add them to the wok—what needs the most cooking, say small pieces of broccoli, should be added first and what needs the least, say snow pea pods, last. You want the vegetables to retain some crunch.
Add the ginger, garlic and turmeric. Stir fry 1 minute more.
Add cooked meat (if using) and stir fry 1 minute more.
Add the cooked rice, breaking up any lumps with your fingers. Stir fry and additional 1-2 minutes then make a well in the center of the rice.
Add remaining teaspoon of oil. Pour beaten egg into the well and cook undisturbed for 1 minute. Stir eggs and then gradually stir rice and eggs together. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with scallion greens. If you’d like, serve with soy sauce and Sriracha on the side.