Soul Food

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Summer in Michigan is gross. It is improbably humid, there are mosquitoes, the sun beats down during the day and the air doesn’t cool down at night. We had no air conditioning in our old house in the center of town. My dad, who had experience of fairly extreme physical conditions, didn’t seem too bothered. He wandered around the house wearing incredibly beat up cut-off jean shorts, white tube socks, sensible shoes and that’s pretty much it. As little kids we were pretty intrigued by the enormous brown scar that ran front to back around one side of his ribs where a tubercular part of his lung was removed in the 50s.

But he didn’t like to fire up the stove in the heat. Sensible, since his cooking frequently featured a steamer, multiple burners and exploding oil. So there were special hot weather dishes, smashed cucumber salad from the cucumbers he grew in the garden, “drunken chicken”, and salads.  Noodle salad (lung mien, “cold starch” basically) was always a hit because noodles and kids go well together. He made his own noodles, chilling and oiling them before setting them out with fixings. Usually it was matchstick sliced cucumbers and ham and it was always served with his special peanutty dressing. It was sweet, salty and tart. We ate it around the table with the back door open to the garden. If Dad was feeling particularly sporty he’d go down two blocks to the beer drive through and get an Olde English 40. He and mom always let us try it, if we asked, warning us we wouldn’t like it. They were right.

This summer I grew some Japanese cucumbers and some more ordinary ones.  The Japanese ones are the same kind my dad grew, with art nouveau curves and whitehead spines. I’m not sure what made me think of doing noodle salad, other than it’s August, but I got pre-made soba noodles at the Asian grocery (I think I could make my own noodles.  I know my brother and one of my sisters and I can do it as a team, but it’s a lot of work).  I boiled and cooled them and diced up the fixings: I was a little concerned because the pinkness of ham is a big part of the aesthetic and all I had was lunch meat, but it looks good with the tofu, chicken and cucumbers. Finally I mixed up a dressing: Peanut butter, tahini, sesame oil, soy sauce.  I rooted around in the cupboard and found white pepper, which dad put in everything. I didn’t have fresh ginger and garlic. I added sugar and vinegar. It didn’t quite taste right, but as I was going back and forth to the shelf where I keep the oil and vinegar, I spotted a spherical bottle. It was nasty and dusty, besides being a re-purposed Crown Royal bottle.

I had toted it around to every place I’ve lived since probably 1995. It contained some dregs of ginger liqueur my father made. He called it “cold cure”. It has been in my current kitchen, in the same spot, for close to nine years. My father died in 2005. He hadn’t been up to making liquor for at least 10 years before that. I opened it and sniffed. It smelled exactly as strong, sweet and syrupy as I remembered. I looked at the oily dust bunnies on the bottle and wondered if I could bring myself to use it. Not because it was disgusting, but because it was something my father had made himself. I’d been hoarding it because he touched it. But I decided I’d better pull up my big girl panties and let go of some things.  So dumped the last of the ginger liqueur into my noodle dressing.

I tasted it again and it tasted right. Some where between upending the bottle and tasting the dressing I realized I don’t need to hoard the things he made, because I am one of those things. He made thousands of meals that built my bones. I can never run out of something he touched.

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This entry was posted in Asian, cooking, culture, Dad, family, food, garden and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Soul Food

  1. Tim Abbott says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading this.

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