Year of the Ram

Every produce stand in Chinatown is ladened with lucky tangerines, oranges, and pomelos for New Years.
Every produce stand in Chinatown is ladened with lucky tangerines, oranges, and pomelos for New Years.

In a few days I will go home to celebrate Chinese New Years with my mother and family. Mama is 88-years old, extremely frail and has dementia. If you ask her what should be served for Chinese New Years she can no longer tell you. If you ask her for her signature recipe for steamed sea bass with scallions and ginger, a dish she insisted on serving every year for over 50 years because it symbolizes good fortune, she cannot tell you a thing. All of that knowledge, tradition, and food memory is lost.

In her prime Mama was obsessed with eating well, in particular, her beloved Cantonese homestyle dishes. In the mid 1990s I made many trips to San Francisco to cook with Mama. She was in her 70s and was an extraordinary home cook. As I recorded the recipes and family stories I decided it was important to turn this into a cookbook so that future generations would not lose the traditions. In 1999, Simon & Schuster published my memoir cookbook, “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.”

In the last few years, I have been cooking my mother’s Chinese New Year’s feast for her. It’s odd and wonderful to open the cookbook to the chapter on Chinese New Years and to find all the recipes for her menu are there. When Mama sees the dishes and tastes the food her face lights up in delight, awakening the food memories buried in her. In a million years I never dreamed I would give her cooking back to her.

Sometimes I wonder if any medical studies are being conducted that show the connection between food and memory. In 2003, when my mother was 77 she suffered a stroke. When I arrived at the hospital she was unable to speak. I watched her poking at the ghastly meatloaf and mashed potatoes she was served. After a day of helplessly watching Mama in her diminished state, I drove home and made one of her favorite dishes, a stir-fry of chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and ginger that is finished cooking over steaming hot rice in a pot. I made a small portion and brought the piping saucepan into her hospital room. As I entered the room I could tell Mama recognized the familiar aroma. She devoured the entire meal.

On February 18th, to properly start the Year of the Ram, I will cook Mama’s traditional Chinese New Years feast. We will have stir-fried clams with black bean sauce, poached chicken with ginger sauce, stir-fried snow pea shoots, glazed roast squab, stir-fried garlic lettuce, oyster-vegetable lettuce wraps, Buddha’s delight, and steaming hot rice. And we will finish the meal with a steamed sea bass. It is essential to prepare more than enough fish, so that some of it remains on the platter at the close of the New Year’s Eve dinner. This symbolizes taking a reserve of food, or surplus, into the New Year. Here’s Mama’s recipe as it was published in Saveur.

The Cantonese insist on serving fish for New Year's Eve dinner because it represents abundance. And because fish swim in pairs they are regarded as a symbol of marital bliss.
The Cantonese insist on serving fish for New Year’s Eve dinner because it represents abundance. And because fish swim in pairs they are regarded as a symbol of marital bliss.

I think my mother’s story is a reminder that if your family has great recipes and stories you should learn them from the older generation to preserve your culinary legacy. Someday those recipes could be the one link we have to reach our loved ones.

NOTE: Saveur did not include all of Mama’s helpful tips. The platter has to be heatproof with sloping sides (to prevent the juices from spilling over). Steam the fish until the fish just flakes when you poke the thickest part with a fork or chopsticks. Once the platter is removed from the wok carefully pour off any liquid. And finally sprinkle on the remaining scallions over the fish and drizzle with the soy sauce before pouring the hot oil over the fish (Saveur switched the order by mistake). Don’t be alarmed if the oil makes a loud crackling sound as it hits the fish. Then, garnish with cilantro.

12 thoughts on “Year of the Ram

  1. Laura, Thank you for letting me know. I’ve been thinking my mom is unreachable for a conversation. But when I open Wisdom there are tips and stories that I’ve forgotten until I read the recipes. In a way, the book gives me a way to reach her again.

  2. I shared a hospital room with an older woman who had dementia. When her son came to see her she didn’t recognize him, but then he started singing “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck…” from Guys & Dolls and she sang along with him. It’s amazing what things still reach people’s hearts, like scents of familiar foods and the melodies of familiar songs, even when the mind has partially vanished. I hope you have a great trip and a wonderful coming year.

  3. Thank you – for sharing this story of the kind love and connection that family traditions and food tie together through our observing and continuing. The responsiveness of the food (and music) memory is one of encouragement, even as we learn to have a relationtiop with the person they are now, we honor our parents as they were, and somehow find ourselves grateful.

  4. The mind is a mysterious thing but I have always been convinced that food touches our memories, that the odors, textures and the flavors awaken something inside of us even if we cannot explain it. Food is what still connects you to your mother. What lovely thoughts, words and story you have shared with us, dear Grace. Thank you.

  5. I weep. My mother had Alzheimer’s, and at the last had such trouble swallowing, all her food had to be blended. She had been an extraordinary Italian home cook, and food was always her gift to us. As she diminished, well you know the trajectory, I found that food played that role of reaching her that my words could not.

  6. You’re right Roz, music also has the same ability to awaken something in us.That’s a beautiful story. Thanks for the good wishes. I hope the Year of the Ram is very healthy and happy for you! xo

  7. Thank you Irene! You’re right that we have to “learn” to accept a different relationship and a way to communicate with our parents when they reach this stage. All good wishes to you for a blessed new year!

  8. Jamie, It is mysterious and beautiful how food gets deep into our soul like an old love. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. All good wishes to you this Chinese New Year for good fortune in your new venture! 🙂

  9. Zanne, I’m honored to have you on my humble site. Thinking of you and wishing you all the best this year! xo

  10. As the body ages and diminishes it’s terrible to see the loss of memory and then, finally the inability to enjoy the simple pleasures of food. I feel for what you had to witness with your mom. Thank you for sharing.

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