The Kitchen God’s Daughter

My father was one of those people who had a minor public identity. The local news covered him occasionally for years and he had a chapter in a book about teachers of the internal martial arts. Mostly people wrote about him as a martial artist, in the last part of his life. An irritating thing that happened when people wrote about him was they would sometimes refer to him as Professor Chin, and say that he had taught at the University. I have no idea whether my father encouraged this view, or that people inferred it from things he said. He had a peculiarly expansive view of his own

importance, but he always told the truth as he saw it. I felt like other people were trying to take ownership of his story by giving him prestige, while writing out the parts that did not fit their narrative.

It’s true that my father had a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language, and when he first came to the United States, taught briefly at Middlebury College before starting graduate school. But for all of my childhood, he made his money by catering traditional Chinese banquets in people’s homes. He also taught cooking classes (for money). He taught tai qi (for free) four times a week, outdoors, rain or shine.

Dad’s “dinners” set the rhythm of my childhood. He made his grocery lists (in Chinese), took my brother and sisters with him to Kroger, Farmer Jack and Meijer’s to get meat, fish, greens, ginger root and great big bags of sugar and flour. He would tell us stories while he stood over the steamer or ripped the gills out of whole fish and threw them down the garbage disposal. He would sing songs at his chopping block, sometimes ones he composed, sometimes snatches of Handel’s Messiah or Mozart’s Magic Flute. He also had this raucous chorus of some blue grass ditty he like to shriek.

He and his mother, my NaiNai, would make noodle dough and wrap dumplings at the dining room table (pot sticker wrappers were always handmade, wonton wrappers, never). He and my mother would write up the menus in both Chinese and English. We’d walk with my mother over to campus to get them photocopied and when we came home the house would smell like roast ham and bread, because that’s what he made for us to eat when he was out catering. Dad did almost all the cooking at home. Dinner when he was home was usually rice and chicken with salty brown sauce, or meatball soup with cabbage and transparent noodles. On weekends he’d have his tai qi students over for breakfast and make “fancy stuff”, like oily baked sesame rolls. A few times a year (my mother’s birthday, Thanksgiving and Chinese New Year) we’d have a crazy banquet in the house and he’d make cashew chicken, aerosolizing the hot peppers in the hot wok and driving everyone into the street with the fumes. After the last course he’d bring out his home made fruitliqueurs: pear, peach and cherry concocted with the cheapest vodka and aged in random recycled bottles.

He eventually bowed to pressure to start a restaurant, which proved to be disaster in many ways, for many reasons. It closed after a couple of years and he became a security guard briefly, then the manager of a laboratory maintaining rats for science experiments. Dad had plenty of experience managing rodents because for a while when my brother and sisters and I were in our teens he kept dozens of them in our house to feed the pet python. The rodents in the house eventually disappeared, but it worked out well because Dad’s lab job meant that he could take home “extra” rats. Already euthanized, he would put them in plastic bags in the freezer and thaw them on demand. Sometimes, when I was home from college I’d go for the ice cream and a solid chunk of frozen rat would fall on my toe.

After 34 years in the United States, my dad barely made enough money to accrue Social Security. Which didn’t much bother him because as a traditional Chinese of scholarly aspirations, he thought making money was vulgar. When he finally retired from the lab, he began to pursue the Chinese martial art of Qi Gong in earnest and developed a reputation as a healer. He wouldn’t accept direct payment for his services, but instead kept a vase on a bureau by the door and studiously ignored anyone putting money in or taking money out. The people who came to sit in a row on his sofa and feel his healing energy would put money in. My mother took it out. She had to see the bills were paid.

I have a picture of my father, doing tai qi. It hangs in my kitchen. My father’s family was converted by missionaries in the 19th century so the traditional Kitchen God was never part of my life, but I think of the picture as my kitchen god, my father watching over my kitchen, while doing something that he lovedImage

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