Cooking lesson (a story)

The tea kettle shrilled commandingly when the water boiled. As I poured hot water over the bowlful of dried mushrooms, I was blinded by a fog of steam on my glasses.

“Mama, what if I married a black guy?” Wiping my glasses on my t-shirt, I looked sideways at her momentarily fuzzy figure. As I sat the tortoise shell frames back on my stubby nose, I saw that her eyes never even lifted from the water running into the pot in the sink. She stirred her fingers through the water, firmly rubbing the rice as the water turned milky.

“Why would you do that?”

“I’m just asking,” I shrugged, watching as she strained the water between bent fingers. I picked up the knife, slicing the ginger and sending its sharp tang into my nose.

“Tsk. You’re cutting the ginger too thick. Give me the knife.” She didn’t wait for me to put the knife down as she stepped in front of the cutting board. “Rinse the rice one more time. Be careful. Don’t let any of it wash away. Only this much water.” She showed me her left thumb, crooked at the knuckle. “Then get it started.” She frowned at the ginger on the cutting board, turned the knife on its side, and smacked the slices hard with the side of the blade. A few pieces flew out from under the knife, which she gathered back impatiently.

I stared at her. Why did she have to tell me how to do it every single time? “So, Ma, what would you do?”

“What?” The knife in her hand beat a staccato so fast it was like a low rumble of thunder, leaving the ginger minced in a thousand little pieces.

“If I married a black guy.”

“Get three scallions.”

I got the scallions, plus the bok choy and the chicken, from the fridge. “So…?”

I watched as she sliced the scallions in a tidy line. “Get the…. Oh. Put the chicken in the sink. Make sure it doesn’t drip.”


I thought I saw her hands hesitate for just one brief moment, then she punctured the plastic wrap and tore it away from the styrofoam tray. She plopped the chicken thighs wetly onto the cutting board. “So you’re getting married now?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then there’s no use talking about it.” I jumped when the knife cracked heavily through a bone. “You have to cut through the bone, you know. The marrow is what makes this dish delicious. Americans think breast meat is the best. But what do they know?” She sniffed as she swung the knife down again. Crack! “Just trim off a little bit from the end of the bok choy, Ming. Cut through the bottom where it’s thick, but leave it whole. That’s how Chinese people like it. And let it soak, so all the dirt will come out.” Crack!

I smiled down at the basin of bok choy. I was already washing it. “I’m just saying, ‘What if…?’”

“What if? What if? Who has time for what if?” Crack! “Did you finish your homework yet?”

“No, Ma.”

“So what are you talking about, what if? See if the mushrooms are soft all the way through, then go do your homework.”

“Ma, just say what you would do.”

She exhaled heavily. “What would he eat, your black man, if you married him? He’s not going to eat this?!” And she jabbed at the soggy pile of chicken pieces with the point of the knife.


[Curious about what Ma and Ming are cooking? Go to the recipe for bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms.]

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