A Chinese Food Memory

Chinese Dinner

It’s amazing what will trigger a Food Memory.

I was speaking with a friend the other day about family dinners and we got to talking about our food memories growing up and what we’ve done with our own families to create food memories for our kids.  Each of us grew up in completely different environments with completely different backgrounds but had experienced a commonality in what happened for both of us around the table. The whole conversation brought back a favorite food memory for me and some serious insight as to why I do what I do with my family and friends – all around the table.

When I was in middle school my parents had some very good friends from mainland China that they would socialize with on a fairly regular basis.  My parents loved Chinese food and I have a very clear memory of a beautiful set of chopsticks that these friends had given to my mother for her birthday one year.  They brought them all the way from China – this was the 60’s and travel between the US and China was almost impossible at the time – people were escaping to come to the US.

I know that they had moved permanently to the US at the time and were never going back (at least that is my memory as a teenager) so anything they brought with them was very precious.  My mother was honored and humbled to have received this very special gift from them.  She would bring them with her whenever we went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner.  The hard part was that they were very polished and extremely slippery so she would always have a difficult time eating dinner.  It never mattered to her – she loved them and the love and sacrifice that they represented to her friends – those dinners for her were more about using the beautiful gift than actually getting to eat a complete meal.

I also remember the one dinner (I may have been 5 or 6) when my father decided that I was old enough to learn how to properly use chopsticks.  When you go to an Asian restaurant you will usually see small children using chopsticks that are connected either using a rubber band or springing device to help them keep the pair together and allow the small children to eat by themselves.  At this particular dinner my dad decided it was time for me to switch from Western cutlery to real chopsticks!  I remember him telling me that I couldn’t use any fork or spoon (in fact he made sure there weren’t any on the table) and that if I was hungry I would learn how to coordinate the chopsticks to navigate food to my mouth….I learned quickly and to this day I can’t eat any Asian food without a pair of chopsticks – including rice and noodles!

We would go to their favorite Chinese restaurant and I can still see the “lazy susan” in the middle of the table that would be full of the many dishes my parents would order for us to eat.  There was always a lot of discussion about what was in a particular bowl.  One of us would taste it and inevitably they would say – “It’s so delicious you have to try it!”  With all of the tasting of the different flavors, the turning of the lazy susan toward whoever was trying something, the chatter about what we were eating or who got the last bite of something wonderful it was always a fun and crazy dinner.  I loved those meals with all of their silliness and laughter – not to mention the appreciation I learned for good Chinese food and of course my ability to use chopsticks properly!

I didn’t think about this food memory for years until the conversation with my friend brought it to light.  He was telling me that when his family (he’s Japanese) would have everyone over for a big meal, each person would bring something to contribute to the table – not a huge casserole or enormous bowl of salad – but a small bowl of something that they liked to eat so that everyone might have just a bite to experience the flavors in each dish.  He said that there was always so much laughter and sharing that it left lasting memories. It’s exactly how I like to eat to this day – talking, laughing, eating all with family, friends and those I love.  Each person sharing a special bite of something wonderful – around the table.

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