Wednesday, February 09, 2005

From my earliest memory until about the age of eight, I really only wanted to eat from two food groups: bread and sweets. It makes sense for most children to have their palates restricted to these things as in nature bland and sweet foods are usually edible, and bitter tastes herald poisons. What child doesn’t find starchy dishes comforting? To me they were ‘safe’ foods because you could almost always predict how they would taste. And they were often part of dishes that were given to aid comfort. Milk toast, noodles and butter, rice and milk, dumplings in chicken soup were all bland and comforting dishes I looked forward to. I wouldn’t complain if someone sprinkled a little onion or dried parsley on top of these things. Once in a while I would take bits of smoked salted fish on my rice. My father would laugh when my mother would cave in and put milk and butter on top of my rice. “That’s how Puti eat rice,” he’d say. Puti being slang in our family for white people. My mother insisted that I’d been fed the stuff as a toddler by my elderly babysitter Mrs. Gunther, and Mrs Gunther could do no wrong in my eyes so this became my preferred way of eating rice.

My family would, on occasion, make their version of steamed meat buns or Hum Bao. Hum Bao, a Chinese or Asian pastry made of plain steamed white flour dough wrapped around barbeque pork meat, probably entered the culinary consciousness of most Americans when it was introduced to them from the Costco freezers along with frozen potstickers as a quick and easy Asian food. Wrap the Hum Bao in a paper towel, pop it in the microwave for a minute or two and you have half a meal ready to go. The Hum Bao dough made from my aunt’s recipe wasn’t as fluffy as most would prefer. After steaming, you could run your fingertips over the surface of the buns and find that the cooking process had rendered it shiny and mildly dimpled like the skin of an orange. I detested the filling, a preparation of pork sweetened with a little brownsugar and mixed with chopped egg and a few raisins. Of course, I had the habit of eating around the bun and leaving the filling behind, but my mother would often refuse to give me a bun unless I ate the entire thing… eggs and raisins in all. I found myself so conflicted because I loved the bun so much, but couldn’t bring myself to stomach the filling. Raisins were hardly bearable on their own and tolerable when found in an oatmeal cookie, but the chalky texture of eggs overcooked until the yolk was pea-grey and their sulfury taste was more than I could swallow. Most savory foods held just as much appeal for me. I found often found myself burying my meat with rice or wrapping bits of hotdog in pockets of white bread. I am still convinced that Wonder baked the bread to the tastes of children as well as put it in a bag that reminded them of the clown colors from the circus, so that they would kick and scream in the grocery until their parents finally placed a loaf in the cart. Bread was king and I would do anything that I could to get even a lump of the Hum Bao dough for myself. I loved sneaking a few lumps of the dough and sneaking meatless buns into the steamer. I eventually developed a system of marking my buns with a clove then sneaking them from the container with a washcloth before I was discovered. Sometimes I’d loose one of my doughy treasures in the mix with all the rest, my father would inevitably bite into it and mutter an astonished curse or two.

For most of my early childhood I was content to dine on plain foods… then suddenly, I discovered steak.

To be continued…

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