Essential Meals

Fourteen Hills, Spring 2009, 15.2



            “I ate bull testicles once in America,” Hairy Legs said. “My cousin took me to a Testicles Festival where they fried them in beer batter outdoors and called them Rocky Mountain oysters. And then at night, I’m not lying, women lined up to take off their shirts and dance on stage.” He shimmied while cupping imaginary breasts on his chest. “Bull testicles and topless women under a big Montana sky.”

            Jack furrowed his brow. His whisper reined in the men around the table. “Hairy Legs and ol’ Bull, you two ever wonder why your cousin and your Japanese client fed you testicles? You know the old proverb, ‘Like nourishes like?’ They must have sensed some kind of a lack.”


            Rhythmic applause swelled around the table. Jack interlaced his fingers and bowed before serving Hairy Legs and ol’ Bull each a heaping spoonful of sea cucumber. “The task has now fallen upon me to fortify you with some marine manhood.”

           During the ruckus, someone slipped the head of the braised rock cod onto Little Su’s plate, and the men burst into more laughter.

            A.B. watched a waitress approach their table with a platter of stewed abalone and shitake mushrooms. With dancing brows, Jack and Hairy Legs, former sales partners, bantered and cajoled her with practiced tag-team smoothness for some free cognac. She counted up the empties on the floor around their table and agreed to ask the owner for a discount. She gave Jack a lingering look before walking away. The two guys slapped each other on the back and entertained speculations from the table.

           A.B.’s men bustled with an exuberance and camaraderie that felt out of his reach. After his wife left him years ago, he thought these guys stood in for the family he no longer had. Now that he was not their boss, A.B. could not say if any of them would stay in touch.

           When the table finally quieted down, Little Su put himself eyeball to eyeball with the fish head on his plate and jutted his lower jaw forward in imitation. “Good evening, my little beauty. You landed on the wrong boat. You belong to our captain.” With arms extended, Little Su presented it to A.B.

            A.B. put his hands together in thanks. He knew Little Su hated fish, but A.B. was still touched as he picked at the delicate cheeks. Little Su had remembered that he liked this little tidbit.

            “I thought we Asians were the only ones who ate organs and innards.”

            “Europeans have well developed palates, too. You know the French eat tongue and pancreas and horsemeat,” Hairy Legs said, as he served Jack three of the choicest pieces of sautéed lobster. “Did you hear—in Guangxi near the Vietnamese border, people pay large sums for smuggled chameleons, pangolins, and pythons.”

            Jack put down a half-bitten piece of geoduck. “You don’t need to go as far as the border to find that. There’s a wild game restaurant on Beijing Road in Guangzhou that serves bear paws, owls, bats, not to mention the everyday fare of dogs, cats, and snakes. I had monkey brain and stew there once.”

            Little Su grimaced. “Did they have a hole in the table along with ropes, gags, and saws?”

            “Such barbarism is a thing of the past,” Jack scoffed. “Nowadays, the monkey is brought on a platter to the table—still alive, of course. You wouldn’t want to eat it any other way. But it’s drunk out of its mind and near comatose. There’s no screeching and thrashing. You just lift the shaved and pre-cut skull and dig in.”

            “What does it taste like?”

            “Nothing, really. Like tofu. You flavor it with ginger, chili pepper, and fried peanuts,” Jack said. “It’s very nourishing. Especially the stew with medicinal herbs on a cold winter day.”

            Ol’ Bull shook his head as he set a bowl of shark’s fin soup in front of A.B. “Why such paltry thrills?”

            Jack shrugged. “What makes a cow, for instance, more acceptable to eat than a monkey? Hindus consider cows sacred. That monkey was already in a cage at the restaurant. If I didn’t eat it, someone else would have.”

             The right corner of ol’ Bull’s mouth turned upwards. “You are absolutely correct. The governing principles ought to be survival of the fittest and, uh—what was it you pointed out earlier—‘like nourishing like’ to make up for deficiencies?”

            The table roared. “Our hero!” someone shouted and Little Su pulled ol’ Bull’s right arm skyward.

            A.B. laughed. “Old ginger still has the more potent sting,” he said, quoting a common saying. All eyes turned to him.

            When nothing more appeared to be forthcoming, Jack said, “What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten, A.B.?”

            A.B. surveyed the faces at the table. His men appeared as eager to please as on the day he hired them. Even Jack’s smile radiated to the fishtailed corners of his eyes. In truth, A.B.’s forced retirement was a house-cleaning decision from the new management. He harbored no hard feelings toward his younger colleague. “I come from a different time, an entirely different background. You’d probably consider everything and nothing I ate unusual.”     

            The conversation again came to a stand still.

            “C’mon,” said ol’ Bull. “Teach these sniveling lads a thing or two.”

            A.B. took a sip of the cognac and considered what to tell these city boys. “I grew up near Pingtung—in a little village near the southernmost tip of our island just before the land soars into mountains. There were eight kids in my family.”

            “I thought you were from Tainan and had two brothers,” Hairy Legs said and was shushed by ol’ Bull.

            “I grew up in the countryside. Sharing a bite of a hot, caramelized yam that’d been buried in our little coal stove was a treat. Not being caught and beaten for climbing our neighbors’ trees and eating their dragon eyes—that was something. Eating roasted grasshoppers with my brothers—unforgettable. And then around the Lunar New Year, my father’s employer—BaBa was a servant in the household of the richest man in town—his boss would give him a big steamed square of thousand-layer cake or a sticky slab of nien gao to bring home. That was what we considered unusual and exotic.”           “Tell them about the monkeys,” ol’ Bull said.

            A.B. smiled at his old pal. The two of them were as good a team as any of the partnerships around the table. He said to Jack, “Farmers routinely trapped macaques. Catching one was doubly good—fewer ruined crops plus meat for the pot. We ate whatever was available.” He drained his first cup of cognac.

            “What did you hate to eat the most when you were a kid?” Little Su asked.

            “There were ten of us. When my father was alive, there was just enough to go around. After he died . . .” He shrugged. A.B. rarely spoke about his father’s death, but the sympathetic eyes around the table cradled him in their gaze. He rubbed the carved arms of his throne and continued, “After my dad was gone, his boss, Mr. Woo, hired my oldest brother as an errand boy. Another brother worked here and there for the few farmers who could afford help. Most already had enough hands in their families. My mother bought cooking coals and rice with their earnings. We had a few chickens, so there were often eggs. We might slaughter one of our birds for the Mid Autumn Festival or for Ching Ming as an offering to my father.

            “My older sister and I were put in charge of two younger ones. When not in school, our job was to forage. Wild guava, papaya, mango, jambu, plums, pomegranates—you name it, it was out there. The fruits were small with huge pits and often very tart, and we cooked them in a salty rice soup. We also dug. Lily bulbs and flowers, white and, sometimes even purple carrots, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, lotus seeds and roots—we found them all. My sisters and I spent a lot of time in muddy banks pulling up cattail roots. My mother dried and then pounded them into a floury paste. When we were out of rice, she’d make flat bread and porridge with it. When the cattails flowered, we’d make sweet pollen cakes.” A.B. had not thought of those days in a long time. He chuckled. “We kids were like wild animals. It was a rigorous life, but a life with its own kind of wonder, camaraderie, and even beauty.”

            “What was your favorite food back then?”

            A.B. tilted his head back and laughed again, one of the guys. “What we craved more than anything was meat. Oh, what we went through to catch something to eat. The easiest was probably the turtles that hid in the banks. My older sister and I spent hours devising traps. Problem was we didn’t want to give up what little food we had as bait. We spent entire afternoons hiding in bushes and firing rocks at birds. Pouncing and splashing in ponds after bullfrogs with nets we wove out of disintegrating straw. We didn’t catch much. Wild creatures were fast.”

            The men chortled. Jack’s shoulders shook with laughter. “It’s like camping everyday. An ideal life for most kids.”

            Ideal indeed. Jack’s remark brought to mind the night A.B. woke to a dream of red braised pork. Climbing over three sleeping brothers, he followed his nose to the stove and found the squatting silhouette of his mother shoveling the contents of a bowl into her mouth. When he asked for a bite, she refused him. How he had despised her at that moment. She told him in a barely audible whisper about her dizzy spells, about how she feared she would faint and pass on to the next world. He learned that after each of her last five babies, two of whom were stillborn, the midwife had stressed the importance of the traditional month-long confinement. They did not have the means for that or for the other recommendation of consuming a freshly slaughtered chicken for thirty continuous days.

            Staring at Jack, A.B. struggled to maintain an even tone. “Your campers probably would not have liked eating rats. Rats ate our rice and stole our—”

            Little Su swallowed hard and looked away, and A.B. stopped himself. He thought he saw disgust or maybe it was pity flash across Hairy Leg’s face. His mother’s quiet voice played in his head, “I eat rats so that you and your brothers and sisters would never have to.” Unsure how to continue, A.B. gulped his cognac.

            Jack took the bottle from Hairy Legs and refilled A.B.’s cup. “Someone told me that peasants in Guangdong fry their rats. Quite delicious, too, I hear.”

            Cup raised, A.B. nodded to his younger colleague, “To rats.”

            “Ganbei.” The men downed their drinks together.

            Hairy Legs took back the cognac, and his increasingly unsteady hand splashed at the wine cups around the table.

            A.B. covered his. “Just tea for me. You know I can’t drink anymore.”

            “On any other night but this one, A.B.” Jack grabbed the bottle from Hairy Legs. “Retirement comes once in a lifetime.”

            “No, no, please. I’m very poorly constituted,” A.B. said as Jack filled his cup.

            “Is our Old Woo related to the Mr. Woo who employed your father?” Jack asked. “Was that how you got this job?”

            A.B. glared until Jack looked away. Jack came from generations of money and had used more connections to get where he was today than anyone at the table. A.B. decided he would pay for the meal and scribbled with his fingers to motion the waitress for the check. He tried to stand, but the throne pinned him in.

            Little Su said, “What happened to your brothers and sisters? How did you end up in Tainan?”

            A waitress brought A.B. the bill.

            “Absolutely, no. He’s the guest of honor.” Jack jumped to his feet and wrested the check away. “You’re going to need that money for retirement.” He ordered another bottle of cognac.

            A.B. could not help feeling piqued again. Why shouldn’t his men be allowed to see the full measure of his life? He removed his suit jacket and knocked back more drink.

            “One hot, dusty afternoon when I was thirteen, a stranger claiming to be a second cousin of Mr. Woo came to our house,” he began. “Dressed in a cream linen suit, he exuded an elegance that defied the summer’s heat, like no one I’d ever met before. He came to hire me away for six months. I was small for my age and no great scholar. My mother told the man that there were stronger and more experienced boys in our town, not to mention in our own household.

            “After he offered condolences for my father’s death, this relative of Mr. Woo explained that his brother was very ill and his nephew, who was my age, needed a companion, a distraction. His brother was wealthy, and I would be treated in a manner befitting his own children. My mother would not touch the two thick rolls of cash from the man—the first for my services and the second for good faith, to be given back to him upon my safe return. He left the money on a table and said he would be back for me in the morning.

            “I wanted to go. I counted out the first set of bills and told my mother we couldn’t refuse. He had given us enough to start the egg business she dreamt about, and a steady income meant that the younger kids would be able complete, at the very least, their six years of compulsory common schooling. That night, despite my mother’s misgivings, we lit incense for my father and thanked him for blessing us with this good fortune.

            “The stranger drove up the next day in a black sedan. And amidst the throng of excited kids and yapping dogs, my mother let me go.”

            A.B. remembered his mother’s rough hand on his cheek. “Don’t forget us” was the last thing she said to him.

Roasted chicken.jpg

            “Our first stop was at a noodle shop in town. ‘We’ve got to fatten you up,’ the man said and ordered a bowl of noodles and an entire fried pork chop just for me. I knew right then that I had made a good decision.

             “I went from my tiny village to Tainan, the oldest and most prosperous city at the time in Taiwan. Everything was bigger, better, brighter. And the food—I was encouraged to eat my fill at every meal, and after I was stuffed, there would still be leftovers. And the mistress set out snacks every two hours—dumplings, meat buns, futomaki, mochi, stinky tofu—not to mention the watermelon seeds, sour plums, and candied peanuts left out all day. I remember my amazement the first time she brought out a plate of braised wings. They had slaughtered ten chickens just so everyone could eat the same delicate morsels.

            “The family treated me like an honored guest, and I was barely aware of the sickly master who worked and rested behind closed doors. Being reminded to keep quiet and not run through the house were the only ways his illness affected me.”

            A.B. drank in the rapt look on his men’s faces. “This happened in the 1930’s during the Japanese occupation, and this family was very modern. They lived in a Japanese style house with tatami mats, sliding paper screens, low tables. Their oldest son attended university in Japan. Whereas I only spoke Japanese at school, this family had entire conversations in Kokugo. Every member of that household down to the cook was called by their Japanese names.

            “I spent most of my day with the mistress, who made sure I had everything. Hiroshi, my supposed companion, in truth, had no need for me. He was at school until late afternoon. We’d have a snack and then attend his private tutoring session together. Homework occupied the rest of his time. I did not have much to do except to eat, read the books that the tutor assigned me, and answer the mistress’ questions about my family.

            “I felt so grateful. I really wanted to thank them and for them to like me, and so one day, I took a knife and some string from the kitchen. I cut down a slender stalk of bamboo from the garden in front of the house, fashioned a spear, and attempted to catch dinner. The fish we went after at home were small, dark, and quick. Not only were their fish bigger than dinner plates, they were also exceedingly beautiful. They shimmered like rubies and opals.”

            A.B. paused for effect. A number of the men threw back their heads and guffawed.

            “Not only were their fish big and beautiful, they were also stupid and slow. The rich are favored in every way, I thought. I waded in, tinkled the feeding bell as I had seen the maid do, and more fish than I could count crowded around my feet. I rang the bell a couple more times and, in no time, speared two fish. I was so pleased with myself and then so quickly terrified by the look on the cook’s face when I presented her with my dinner contribution. Instead of eating the fish that night, the mistress had them buried under a favorite maple. As she tamped down the last bits of dirt, she explained to me that koi was a symbol of affection and love. Together, we bowed to the fish in apology.

            “The next day when the mistress brought me to meet her husband, I was sure I was going to be sent home. She introduced me instead as their savior. While she asked me not to worry and not to procure any more meals for the family, my master, propped up by embroidered pillows, eyed me from head to toe. His face had a dark, yellowish cast, and he looked as if he were stuffed into his skin, his eyes, slits cut into fermenting dough. My mistress requested three things of me. She said I was too scrawny—I had to eat more and get stronger. She insisted that I bathe daily and keep clean. And finally, that I stay quiet and not exacerbate her husband’s headaches. After I gladly gave my promise, the master waved me forward and snatched my wrist, holding on until he was satisfied by the whites of my eyes and pink of my tongue. As I stepped away, he yelled to his wife, ‘No more soup, I warn you. I’m sick of soup!’

            “Later that day when we were alone, I asked the cook what was ailing our master. Not only did he look ill, he also did not appear to be quite right in the head. She told me that he could not make enough water.

            “I didn’t know why I was there, but after that day, I understood that the rich lived by different rules. I kept my promise and strengthened myself as best I could. My mistress smiled approvingly whenever she saw me eat, and I lived to please her.”

            A.B. stopped himself. He did not want the men to think he had a schoolboy crush on his mistress. How could they understand how it felt to be cared for and valued as her children’s equal? In mere weeks, she had made him feel safer than his own parents did in a lifetime. 

            “About two months after I arrived, my mistress asked if I missed my family and wanted to go home. She said she cherished my contributions to her household and wondered if my mother would consent to an ongoing arrangement. At that moment, I felt that all the hardship my family and I had endured had been worthwhile. As if a good life for all of us required prepaid dues. I told her I had dreamt of this day and immediately set about to compose the new employment proposal to my mother.

            “Soon afterwards, my master’s health deteriorated. His Western-trained Japanese doctor counseled that the end was near. My mistress turned over my master’s treatment to traditional healers. Medicine from herbal doctors were brewed around the clock and fed to the patient. Furniture was repositioned and a new entryway built to rechannel qi. Local monks came to our door at all hours and chanted. Paper money was burned daily to appease offended ancestors.

            “Amongst the various healers, my mistress especially trusted Master Cheng. He had once saved her infant son’s life. While Japanese doctors gave fluids that Hiroshi quickly expelled, Master Cheng halted the dysentery by feeding him prayer ash from specially blessed incense. She welcomed him daily to finger her husband’s pulse and refine his prescriptions and advice. One morning, I was holding a skein of wool while my mistress worked the yarn into a ball when Master Cheng told her that it was time. He had but one remedy left to recommend.”

            A.B. could still see the tears that fell from his mistress’ eyes, tears that he so wanted to wipe away as he untangled his hands from the yarn. He placed his head on her lap, and that day, they held each other for the first time. She stroked his head, and he was the only one in the whole world to comfort her.

            “Master Cheng explained to me that it was within my power to help my master. Whereas it was preferable to have two eyes, two ears, and two kidneys, only one was essential to life.

            “In that instant, I understood my place. I sat up and looked at my mistress. I wanted her to confirm Master Cheng’s words. She wailed and hid her face in her hands and shook her head. I would be lying if I told you that I was not hurt. But in that instant, everything made sense again. As I watched my mistress cry, I saw that she did not want this for me, that she was deeply torn by her obligations, and that moved me all the more.

            “Master Cheng extolled the virtues of my master, the importance of keeping such a great man alive, the great honor that was being conferred upon me.”

            A.B. surprised himself as he recalled the man’s entreaties. What he had been unable to forget were the cries that wrenched his heart and the wish for the man to stop talking.

            “I saw that my mistress would not ask this of me, so I told her that I would make everything all right. My family and I were forever indebted to her, and I was honored to give what she needed.”

            A.B. thought back to the shock that registered on his mistress’ face before her features crumbled again in distress. He had never seen anyone cry with such purity of heart.

            “‘Gomen nasai,’ my mistress said to me over and over, ‘I am deeply sorry.’ She got on her knees and bowed to me, touching her head repeatedly to the tatami. ‘We have done you a great wrong,’ she sobbed. ‘Our family would be honored to call you son.’”

            A.B. took a deep breath and smiled. “And from that day on, she cared for, and loved me the way a mother ought. She gave my family the springboard from which to launch a better life. None of us would be where we are today if not for her.”

            The men shifted in their chairs. No one spoke, and A.B. was suddenly unsure why he told his story and exposed himself in this way.

            “That’s unconscionable, what she did,” Jack said. “You were in no position to make such a decision.”

            “Thirteen and half orphaned.” A.B. shrugged. “I understood.”

            “Hold it. What did you give him exactly?” Little Su asked.

            Hairy Legs rolled his eyes. “A kidney transplant! That’s what we’re talking about.”

            A.B. almost told them that his kidney was slow cooked with swallow’s nest in soup and fed to his master, but the moment passed. No one seemed to realize that this happened before transplants were possible.

            Frowning, Little Su whispered, “I don’t believe it.”

            “Don’t believe?” Ol’ Bull stubbed out his cigarette. “You’re not asking him to lift up his shirt here and show you his surgery scar, are you?”

            Laughter sputtered, and A.B. was grateful for the levity. He wondered if the word surgery with its precise and sterile implications could describe what he endured. 

            “I still can’t—” Little Su shook his head and then straightened up as if to prove a point. “Knowing what you know now, would you still have done it?”

            A.B. had meant to laugh off the question as he stood up. “Look where I am today,” he almost said, his throne-constrained half crouch an apt illustration of his plight. But Jack, his eyes so commiserative and sad, appeared at such a loss for words as he pulled back the chair that A.B. drew him in by the shoulder. He then clasped his men, perhaps for the last time, one after another to his chest.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

Little Su’s question gnawed at A.B. as he drove along Renai Road. At that late hour, neon signs still blazed and pulsed in a blur of color along the tree-lined boulevard, but the street itself was calm, devoid of the racing scooters, cars, and buses that gunned their engines from intersection to intersection. He had nothing left to lose, he thought, as he jerked his wheels at the last second and decided not to make the left turn toward his empty apartment. As his car wove past the gold, curly mustachio roof of the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, he slowed to a crawl. A.B. had been meaning for years to join the 5 a.m. qi gon group that worked out in the surrounding park. Now was his chance—he told himself—he was free of all obligations, free to indulge. He accelerated toward the freeway entrance by Roosevelt Road. As his car ascended onto the upper deck of the thoroughfare, A.B. returned to his nagging thoughts, to what he could have done differently. “I am happy here,” he remembered writing. “I have everything I’d ever wanted.”

            A.B. did not see his mother again until four years later at her funeral. He arrived home in the same black sedan, this time in the company of his new mother. He was heartened to see the fenced-in chicken yard, the tidy hen houses, the strings of electric bulbs, the myriad of improvements he’d made possible. In the main room, inside pine boards, his mother’s cracked lips were painted red, her body dressed in a burst of flowery cotton, the splayed toes of her broad feet jammed into strappy sandals. In black robes, his siblings stood together around the coffin, their heads covered in sackcloth, and after so many years’ absence, he had trouble distinguishing his four little sisters. They wailed and gaped at him and his elegant oka-san in white kimono as a monk chanted and drummed. He gagged at the stifling incense and fought to remember what objects lay beneath the white funereal cloths that draped the room.

Afterwards, he burned the offerings they brought—afterlife money and an elaborate two-storied paper house complete with all manners of creature comforts—and presented his oldest brother with an envelope of cash to help defray funeral costs. A.B. was struck by their country accents, by their unabashed stares. Holding forth a squawking and pecking chicken, a gap-toothed brother denounced the low margin in eggs and pressed A.B.’s new mother to invest in a chicken-meat venture. A.B. shielded her from the flapping bird and escorted her to the car soon after. From that moment on, he felt obligated to protect his oka-san from the demands of his siblings, and he answered fewer and fewer of his oldest sister’s letters. Later on, preoccupied with his own life, he gave away their yearly shipment of salted duck eggs and paid scant attention to the news from home that involved more and more relatives he did not know.

            A.B.’s car barreled south on Chungshan Freeway. If he kept on driving, he could be in Pingtung before daybreak. He had not visited his parents’ graves since the funeral. A.B. wondered when they were last tended and swept. He was ashamed again when he remembered that he did not know where to find their plots, nor did he know what to bring for an offering. He had never learned what foods his parents favored.