The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    A childhood of Chinese moms and dessert struggles

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | February 24, 2008

    In my Food and Wine piece, I talk about how desserts totally mystified my family growing up — specifically these “bake sales.” Then I got a note from Patricia Ryan telling a sweet but sad story of her mother struggling with making desserts in her childhood.

    I just heard you on NPR and decided to read your excerpt from your new book Fortune Cookie Chronicles. My mother is Chinese and my father is American. They met during Vietnam…that whole typical American GI meets China Doll story. It’s always been very strange for me, but it’s like having one foot so deeply rooted in one culture, but at the same time, that very culture is using their foot to kick you out and boy, do I have stories that could blow you away, but I digress. So after I read your book excerpt, I have to tell you, I was almost brought to tears about the comment on Chinese desserts.

    In third grade my class was assigned to bring in our family’s favorite desserts, and if we knew a dessert from another country, all the more better. I remember handing the assignment to my mother and with great regret, she labored over what to make. I didn’t quite understand what her dissension was all about, but I recall my dismay when I noticed what she began to make. All I remember is that she took out her wok, filled it with oil, rolled weird-looking short thick noodle like things, and then cut up small cherries and grapes. Oil?? Grapes?? Fry??? It was the “frying” that freaked me out the most I think. And you are right Ms. Lee, even at 8-years-old I knew that the oven should have been on and oh my gosh! Where was the SUGAR!!!??

    And when I got up that morning and saw what was probably the weirdest looking dessert ever and let’s not mention the taste, my mother nonetheless knowing her own dessert would not go over well with the American child’s tongue, handed me the oily mess with great pride, and shuffled me off to school. Ms. Lee, the humiliation I endured that day at school was one I’ll NEVER forget…all my classmates just stared with WIDE 8-year-old eyes and instead of plunging into my mother’s dessert, they just slowly backed away from the greasy heap that nestled on oil-soaked paper towels. And me, I tried to eat it…I picked at the grapes and cherries, but deep down inside, I knew it was bad and I knew I was different. I remember my teacher consol with her patronizing pat…“Ohh, how interesting, mmm, and tastes…tastes…good.” Great, I know I thought, now people are lying to me. J

    Needless to say, I ended up bringing it all home and with quiet disappoint, my mother threw everything away. I remember going to bed that night upset that I had put my mother through all that tireless work. What a day. I never saw that dessert again. But from time to time, I see it in my mother’s cookbook that has been since passed down to me. I want to thank you for letting me relive that hysterical memory, and though I learned that day just how awful some desserts can be, particularly Chinese ones, I also learned how great a mother’s love can be too. And truly, it is rare to find “simpatico” moments like these…and I want to thank you for that as well. I will read your book.

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