If I had to pick a book that sounds most profound based on the title, it would not be War and Peace, it would be The Joy of Cooking.
Humans look for grand purpose in life, but sometimes we overlook the basic yet fundamental. Offhand I can’t think of anything more homey, than cooking a meal for somebody. Neither can I think of anything more comfy, than eating something cooked for me. Even foot massage might pale in comparison to it.
When I see Pope Francis celebrates the Mass of Lord’s Supper in a prison washing inmates’ feet, I wonder why not he cooks a hearty meal instead. As amiable as Francis appears to me, I can picture him cooking a meal. I understand the foot-wash rite is to emulate what Christ did on the 12 apostles at the Last Supper, but I figure the Pope could cook the supper first, then wash the feet later – the priorities only seem right in this order.
Chinese people are famously fond of cooking. I don’t share the enthusiasm to the same extent – mainly because I dread all social gatherings, but I understand the philosophy. There is a Chinese saying 民以食為天, “Eating is a matter as vast as the sky for people“. Or you can paraphrase it as “Eat comes before everything“, “Hunger breeds discontentment“, “A good meal is all you need” … Death row inmates usually get to choose their last meals; we don’t really know which meal would be our last.
I suspect once we get old, all we care about will be what to eat – for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and repeat. Provided you still have good teeth and reasonable appetite, of course. And you will miss childhood food, hometown food, comfort food of all kinds. Everything else nonessential will be stripped down, only a tender remembrance of our favorite food outlasts.
There’s a well-known Chinese poet I once met, whose free-spirited poetry written in his early years used to be something every school girl in China kept on her nightstand. I might still have a cutout image of him from his youth stuck somewhere personal and intimate.
A bright face with high forehead and chiseled chin, lips firm at the edges but full on the flesh. Exuberant hair combed back, a few curly strands wandering off one temple and earlobes, a touch of nostalgic air. Jet-black long eyebrows, like some accomplished strokes from a calligrapher’s ink-brush. The most lethal are those intense dark eyes – bottomless deep seas, flamed with an army of darts and arrows, dancing with twinkles reminding you of sudden sunlight hitting a morning lake, sending spangles all over the ripples …
When I got to meet him in person, he’s rather advanced in years. The physical contours were somewhat identifiable, but the anima within had long shifted. Poetry had become redundant, and words empty. The only thing he truly enjoyed is food. The way he savored a steamed bun, an egg roll, a chocolate fudge, so attentive and absorbed, single-mindedly and wholehearted. His face beamed with such pure joy like a baby, as if nothing else really existed.
In the end what else could make us feel more sated and sustained, other than something tasty and savory? Life can be that simple, once we grow old enough and don’t fool ourselves anymore.
Just how old is old? I guess it has to be determined case-by-case. If you still have to share posts of lone shadow around street corners under nightly sky, voluptuous flowers blinking at any passersby, dewdrops on foliage, conch shells after morning tides, camel-toes amid treacherous sand dunes … then you are still too young, even though you are full fledged and middle-aged.
If you still think you have a hit song to write, a masterpiece to produce, a Nobel Prize to win, then you are not old yet, still have truckloads of luggage carried on. If we still crave for attention, thirst for fleeting pleasure, go to lengths to get people admire us, by all means try to make people overestimate us … then we are too young, still got a long way to grow and evolve.
Sometimes I ponder what I would like to do when I grow up. How nice it would be, if one day I wake up and find myself no longer driven by this well-disguised narcissism, no longer have the incessant need to say something or even think, but have all the leisure and patience to cook meals for a village of old people, watch them munch on and happily savor the delicacy I prepare for them.
I don’t mean doing it as a job, or a means to achieve any hidden agenda, but purely for the joy of cooking and serving. The village of people, they don’t even have to be my friends or family; they can be just any random strangers passing by, who’ve traveled a long way and finally got down to truly appreciate just one thing in life.
One thing I will surely make for them, is Tang Yuan, also called sweet rice dumplings. You put sweet-rice flour in a bowl, make a well in the middle, add water little by little, knead it into a soft dough.
Then you roll the dough into a rope, cut it up into thumb-size pieces. You can choose to put in any filling you like – toasted sesame seeds or coconut shreds, peanut butter or red-bean paste … then you round up each piece between your palms, and drop it into a simmering soup made with sliced ginger, red dates, gouji berries and brown sugar.
Once all the dumplings float up to the surface, they are ready to serve. Although the longer you let it simmer, the better the bite seems – viscous, smooth, springy. It is the simplest yet coziest treat easiest to make.
Back then in China, my mother often kept a stew on the stove. The hot fusion of ginger, brown sugar and red dates is heartwarming for wintertime, late night or early morning hours, particularly comforting during menstrual period. I scoop up a Tang Yuan, blow on it a little, nibble a bit around the edges, careful with the hot fillings, then I slide it down smoothly, feeling every neuron in my body falling into a rightful place.
My mother is not a happy person. I disappoint her as much as she has been disappointing in herself her whole life. Usually I can’t stand her for long when I go home. Now I have all the freedom being half a globe away from her, but I miss the stew of Tang Yuan she made.
The older I get, the more the tenderness in Tang Yuan seems to stand out, and the more my resistance to her criticism softens. I suspect by the time I get really old, all I remember will be just the stew of Tang Yuan on that stove.