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December 30, 2000
a year ago
three years ago

Dessert Day

I called Mom in a mild panic last night as my memories of what it was that I really wanted to make tonight were from when I was still living in West Lafayette. I think. That was back when I was in elementary school and we were in the mid-West. Chinese in the mid-West with most of the supplies for really cooking good Chinese food were in Chicago or Indianapolis, and the restaurants were just places we didn't go as they either didn't exist or weren't anything more than places that stir-fried celery in a 'sauce' that's mostly just corn starch and chicken broth and called it Chinese food. A lot like how I sometimes think of most of Boulder.

The memory is as far back as the sour plum drink that I had this last summer. It was of this fermented sweet rice soup with mandarine oranges and sweet dumplings from rice flour and possibly the richness of egg drop as well. Sweet and hot and perfect for New Years in the cold of winter. I remembered that it was something that Mom did very, very rarely, because the only way to get the fermented rice was by fermenting it yourself. It was my first practical introduction to clean room techniques or sterile procedures as the cooked sweet rice picked up all kinds of nasties easily on its sugars.

I remembered what I remembered, but I didn't remember any exact amounts of anything that was supposed to go in and I had about a quart of solid fermented rice from the grocery store. That's a lot. Mom saved me and called while I was getting up and brushing my teeth. John talked with her for a bit and then we started talking about what she remembered of the recipe. I'd made it much simpler by buying most of the components already made. The grocery store had had the fermented rice and had the frozen rice flour balls in black sesame and red bean. So she said that I should mash some canned mandarine oranges, add a sugar to taste, and enough water to make it the right strength of soup. She started on the dumpling recipe, which was to get some glutenous rice flour, add water until it was 'the right consistency' and then make thumb tip sized dumplings...

That had me giggling. It is cooking by taste and experience, not by measurement. It made John laugh a lot, "Now you know how I feel!" And how Bob feels. Mei thinks I do things so scientifically, but, really, it's all from the ghosts of old memories or the wisps of new desires.

It was the memories that saved me, much later in the day.

John was cool and made pancake breakfast. Then he went off to do some book shopping and left me at home with the computer and my dictation software and I spent most of the later morning and afternoon catching gradually up. The connections at work were mildly hosed, so I couldn't telnet out to post anything after I'd finished it. Flick's firewall doesn't recognize, yet, so I can't get there from here. Given Xilinx's security, I feel okay doing telnet from the very toughly protected firewall machine. I don't feel okay doing raw telnet from eskimo, given the thousands of accounts they have. Hopefully the SSH connection from eskimo to flick will work some day.

I managed to go out and burn Hell Money today, too. Wrapped myself up in John's big parka as my coat is starting to get mildly tight in the waist. I put on my fur hat and curled up with the coffee can and incense on the front porch. I burned about twice as much as I usually do. I now know my father's mother's name, she who had kept a German Shepherd in Taiwan and who seemed pretty keen. So I burned a lot of it for her and asked her to take care of Fezzik in Heaven. I also did the usual send some to God, too. I'm going to have to cut out some paper bones, dog food cans or bags, and a pillow or ten for him, too, sometime. Oddly enough, I'd had a dream about leaving Fezzik for nearly a week, having only made provisions for him for three days, and being worried sick about it only to come home to find that John's mother had taken good care of him the whole time. Felt it was something of a kick to get Fezzik taken care of spiritually, too.

Around 4, John started his apple pie. Around 5, I started putting my concoction together. I dumped all the rice into one of my Calphalon pots, added an equal amount of water, eyed it and added another part of water. It was still a bit thicker than I remembered, but I had to add the oranges. I had two big cans of canned mandarine oranges that had been on sale at Safeway and I drained one, mashed the segmants with a potato masher and stirred them in and it looked right. I tasted it and blinked. It was very close to my memories. So I stirred in about a quarter cup of sugar, not much for all that mass of water and rice; but when I tasted it, it was right on. Not quite orangey enough for me, so I mashed another can of the stuff and added that. I then turned the heat on under the pot and let it start to warm up. As it warmed the alcoholic content smelled deeper and stronger and when I tasted it it was sweet, rich with wine complexities, citrus high notes, and the texture of the rice was soft and chewy. Mom had said that if I was going to put the flavored dumplings in that I probably shouldn't add the egg drop as well. That was another dessert entirely, just the fermented rice soup with an egg drop. So I left that alone.

I did, however, bring all the equipment to boil and scoop and settle the dumplings into the soup. The dumplings would only take three minutes to cook and they would be mushy and soft when they were done and couldn't be handled much. So I couldn't cook them in advance.

So we had the chocolate torte, the apple pie, and nearly a gallon of sweet fermented rice soup with sweet rice dumplings. A lot of dessert. The plan was that we would be feeding more than twenty people with all that. I was really praying, pretty hard, that the soup would meet everyone approval as I really did not want to be bringing home a gallon of mildly alcoholic stuff back that I couldn't drink. It turned out that I had little to worry about.

Mei's family is big. She has five siblings and they brought their spouses and their children as well. The house was filled with people. At first, I was mildly worried, as I only saw the adults downstairs and I was thinking, there's no way on earth this many people are even going to make a dent... But these were the cooks. Two ducks, dozens of dishes, and they were gradually lining them all up on the counters in the kitchen. We were greeted, introduced to the dozen plus a few adults. Most folks were moving a bit slowly, they'd all been skiing today and yesterday, though some of the women had stayed at home today to cook the dinner. As much to escape the rigors of skiing as to enjoy sharing the work. Gradually, things came together. I moved all the desserts out of the way as soup, rice, and everything else started to appear.

Various of the mothers talked with me and asked me how far along I was. Most were very surprised as to how small I was. That was a very interesting contrast to all the Horde folks thinking I'm so huge, when most of the experienced moms were wondering at how small I was and so close to the delivery date. That was fun to observe.

When the food was ready the kid horde came down from upstairs where they'd been lying around watching TV and talking and resting. Well more than a dozen teenagers, college kids, and middle school kids. It was pretty amazing to see them all rampage down. Reminded me of back when I was still living with my family and our potlucks during the new year. John and I were right in between the parents and the kids. Too old to be a kid, too young to be peers of Bob, Mei or Mei's sibs. We sat, however, with the engineers, and Mei's fears of John and Bob getting left out of all the Chinese conversations were dashed. We all sat, ate, and talked engineer. That was very good. I think, in some ways, John and I were what Mei's brothers and sisters could think of as what their kids might be like when they grow up. It was interesting seeing the body language and even the language used as if we were their kids in some aspect, but still respected adults. It was pretty cool.

Dinner was pretty spectacular. Dozens of good, homemade dishes, all tasty and all different. Bob was shredding the duck and gratefully made way for me to cut the two carcasses into pieces. He was trying to cut it like a turkey, without really realizing that the breast is almost the other way around. On a turkey, the breast is this huge chunk that sticks out from the breast bone. On a duck, the breast follows the breast bone, narrow and long, not really solid with meat the way turkey breasts are bred. So I sliced the duck breast so that people could just peel off a strip with the crisp skin. The legs and thighs dejointed like any bird, and came apart pretty easily into pieces that could be served easily.


I still had my small stomach, so I finished before most folks, though I did have a bite of just about everything. I just didn't go back for seconds. Instead, I got a pot of really hot water, and started watching it to see if it would boil. Of course, it felt like it took a whole lot longer that way. Eventually, it did boil. I also put the sweet fermented rice soup on the back burner, and it started to simmer while the smaller pot started to boil, so I kept the back one at a light simmer. The front one I used to boil half the dumplings. When the rice dumplings floated, I put them gently into the soup and started the second batch. The directions on the packages said that after they started floating they needed another three minutes at a simmer. So I figured that while the first ones could simmer in the soup, I'd get the second batch to the floater level. Popular knowledge, however, was that the moment the dumplings floated, they were actually done. So I was kind of torn between the two, and basically cooked the second batch for two minutes before putting them in the soup.

John, in the meantime, sliced the cake and pie and put them out. It surprised one of the moms to find out that John had actually made the pie, as they all seem to find apple pie something that's really hard to make. All the bowls had been used for corn soup with dinner, so the kids were really great and made a production line and washed and dried all the soup bowls and spoons in the house while the dumplings were cooking. That was impressive.

While I was putting the soup together, many of the adults were oooing and aaahing over it as they hadn't had it for a long time and considered it a treat! Yay! So when it was done, everyone dove in very happily. One of Mei's brothers said that he hadn't had this for 35 years, and the last time he'd had it his mother had bought it from a man with two pails on a stick. Each pail had some of the fermented rice, and they'd bought it from him as he walked by vending it on the street in Taiwan! So that was a very cool memory to have brought up. A very traditional Chinese dessert that was hard to really translate. The dumplings were hot and sweet and gave the way all sweet rice doughs (like mochi if you've had those) give to the bite. The red bean filling was hot and rich, and the sesame filling was toasty and like really strongly flavored peanut butter but a bit gritty with the texture of sesame. The richness of the dumplings played very well with the wine notes of the soup and it was really, really good.

Mei was very happy to have some of it. When she said that she was surprised that we'd brought something, I laughed and said that last week we'd said that we were bringing the cake and pie and she'd said that some of her family was more traditional. So I figured we had to bring something more traditional as well. She apologized for having said it and I said it was a real pleasure to be able to bring back one of my childhood memories. And it really was. The work involved had been pretty minimal, other than planning, and the results had been so appreciated that I was really, really happy. The kids didn't devour the pie or cake, instead, they picked out all the last of the sweet rice dumplings. That was pretty funny.

After dessert I did a little wandering around to the other conversations and it was funny to realize that the only conversations being held mostly in English were our engineering one and the one the kids were having. Even the kids conversation had Chinese dotted throughout and it made me mildly nostaligic for the days when my Mom, Dad, sister and I would gather with a bunch of other Chinese families for the holidays. It was good, though, that John and Bob had conversations they could join fully in.

In the end, we left half the cake and half the pie and took home just two slices of the apple pie. There was about a pint of just soup at the bottom of the pot and we took that home too. We didn't get home until 11 and it just felt really, really good to have been in the midst of all that social whirl for a while. I had forgotten how much I'd enjoyed the Chinese potlucks my Mom and Dad had once been a part of every New Years while I was a kid at home; and this had been a really great reminder both of how fun they were and of how much fun it is to make something for them and have them well receieved.

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