My Insatiable Hunger
by Deanna Dong
My first word as a toddler was “饿”, Chinese for “hungry” and pronounced somewhere between “er” and “ergh.” Once I learned this magical syllable, I unleashed it constantly on those around me.
“Er erghh ergghhhh,” I repeat as soon as we step through the door, despite having eaten a hearty lunch before leaving the house.
“What’s the matter, my little Dian Dian? Oh my precious heart, you are hungry? Lao Lao will find you something,” Grandma Yan exclaims as she closes the door, frantically searching for something to satiate my pressing demands.
“You need to feed her properly,” she scolds my mom. “Your generation is way too concerned with nutrition these days, always going on about protein and sodium. But it’s not that complicated – you just need to make sure the child is eating enough!” My mom shakes her head and glares at me as I gnaw on a chunk of peanut brittle with great satisfaction, my fat cheeks bouncing like cartoon water balloons. While some children go through a picky eating phase, I’ve always been open-minded and voracious, and my reputation within the family for being completely food-obsessed was officially cemented by one particular incident.
I’m three years old, and my mom’s entire side of the family is assembled at Grandma Yan’s house for Sunday dinner. My dad had left for America a year ago “to build us a brighter future,” as he’d repeat in letters to my mom and I. Since then, meals with my mom’s extended family had become an essential part of our weekly routine. As usual, Uncle Peng mans the stove, stir frying and simmering a half dozen dishes with speed and grace as the adults sit in the living room chatting, sipping tea, and cracking sunflower seeds with the hum of the TV in the background. “It’s 3 degrees in Dalian today with a strong breeze. A cold front is moving through Beijing and we expect snow next week,” the weatherman drones on.
Going through a dress-up phase, my two older cousins, ages eight and ten, pilfer Grandma Yan’s closet, arguing over who would get to don the herringbone pantsuit and who would have to wear the dark green wool skirt. I worship my cousins, who I refer to as “sisters” given our shared status as a generation of only children, and beg repeatedly to be included in their shenanigans. But to them, I am nothing more than an annoying little squirt, only fit to be an audience member in their make-believe fashion show. I eventually grow bored with their manic wardrobe changes and tip toe into the kitchen.
“There she is again, little Dian Dian! Back for another visit,” Uncle Peng laughs as he picks out a soy-braised shrimp from the wok, carefully shells it, and drops the orange-and-white striped prize into my open palms.
When lunch is served, the dining room table is piled to the brim with piping hot dishes Two whole fishes sit on top of pillowy tofu, braised in fermented soybean paste and five spice; fragrant garlic scapes stir-fried with gleaming slivers of pork; a simple plate of steamed mantis shrimp (a local crustacean that looks like a nightmarish cross between a shrimp and a crayfish but tastes better than both); brown-burgundy pork belly simmered to the texture of jello on a bed of preserved wild vegetables; eggplant cooked in a garlic sauce and topped with ground pork and chili crisps… Plumes of steam rise from the table and soon the room is blanketed with a layer of fragrant condensation. Since there aren’t not enough seats, my cousins and I are ushered to the kids’ table in the living room. The adults deliver us carefully curated lunch platters, devoid of fishbones, seafood shells, and anything else troublesome.
Half an hour later, my mom comes by the kids’ table to check in on me. My cousins are long gone, having abandoned their half eaten meals to return to Grandma Yan’s bedroom to torture her hats and scarves. While my plate is completely clean, I’m still at the table. In fact, I am sitting in one of my cousins’ seats, staring intently at her leftovers.
“Why are you still sitting here?” my mom asks gently. “Don’t you want to go play with your sisters?”
“They didn’t finish their garlic scapes, and I love garlic scapes,” I reply matter-of-factly as I scoop up one last glistening green stalk from the abandoned plate with my fingers. Once I ascertain that there are indeed no more valuable treasures to excavate, I shuffle over to the other cousin’s seat to continue with my scavenging.
When I am almost five years old, I bid goodbye to Grandma Yan’s family dinners and the entire Yan clan to travel to America to join my dad, who I haven’t seen since the age of two, and my mom, who left me in the care of Grandma Yan a year prior to make her own journey across the ocean. When I spot my parents at the Tampa airport lobby after 16 hours of travel and two connecting flights, I giddily run at full speed into my mom’s open arms, wrapping my upper body urgently around her neck. She nudges me to greet my dad, and I unintentionally burst into tears. With a dark five o’clock shadow, my dad’s face looks frightening and unfamiliar, not at all like how he looks in the family photo on my nightstand at Grandma Yan’s house.
I spend my first few days endlessly pestering my mom with questions – When is our flight back to China? When are we going back to our real home? When will I see my grandparents, my sisters, my family? My mom tries to placate me by saying we’ll head back after we go to Disney World, a shared obsession for children in America and China alike. But after our visit to Magic Kingdom comes and goes with no return flights booked, I start to worry that my situation may be more permanent.
In my first months in America, every aspect of life shifts seismically but one thing remains unchanged – what we ate. There are no excessive Sunday dinners with tables piled high for just the three of us, but despite juggling multiple part-time jobs, my mom makes sure that our meals are staunchly Chinese and homemade. With the exception of the occasional trip to the McDonald’s drive-thru, American food remains completely foreign to me. This changes, however, when I start kindergarten that fall.
Given my extremely limited English vocabulary (my go-to greeting is the comically formal “How do you do?”, which I use without hesitation like some sort of Duchess of York stuck in a Chinese child’s body), the first week of school is a complete blur. I struggle to understand simple directions, relying on my teacher’s earnest miming to move aimlessly through the day. While I don’t understand much, I do get a crash course in one thing – American cuisine. Lasagna, mac n’ cheese, steamed vegetable medley, meatloaf… each lunch period is a new culinary lesson. The dishes are baffling (Why the obsession with sauces made of tomato? Why are vegetables never cooked with meat? And why are vegetables always steamed into flavorless mush?), but I always give my lunch tray my full attention. As my classmates chatter and play games at the table, I closely examine every bite, indiscriminately eating it all. In a sea of linguistic confusion, the 11:45am lunch bell is a Pavlovian signal that the highlight of my day is about to arrive.
As I walk into the cafeteria that Friday, there is an electric excitement in the air, a palpable static of anticipation. Unlike previous days, kids are not just willingly, but eagerly, queuing up for the lunch line, without requiring the chastising look of the teachers who pace the lengths of the cafeteria. Those lucky enough to be at the head of the line smile smugly at their trays as they strut to their tables. I stand on my tiptoes, craning my neck to see what all the fuss was about.
And then, I find out. The fuss is about pizza. By all accounts, this pizza was surely a massed-produced sheet of processed, frozen garbage, something that the mommy bloggers of today would gasp at in terror. But as I take my first bite, fireworks erupt in front of my eyes. My mouth waters in anticipation for the next bite before I’ve even had a chance to swallow my first. It’s unforgettable: the pleasurable squishiness of the dough with just a hint of sweetness, the tangy flavors of the tomato sauce laced with the foreign flavors of oregano and thyme, the layer of salty-yet-sour shredded cheese collapsing into a warm white layer, and the crispy pepperoni cups filled with a thin pool of bright orange oil.
That evening, I can’t stop raving about this new discovery to my parents. My excitement levels are so high that for the first time in days, I forget to pester them with my nightly request to quit school, go back to living with Grandma Yan, and maintain ties with my parents through weekly long-distance phone calls.
A few weeks later, my dad takes me on a trip to the supermarket. It’s a new weekly tradition for us, my dad’s clever strategy to establish a bond with his often sullen daughter in an environment filled with food, which almost guarantees she’ll be in a reasonable mood. As a female singer with impressively powerful vocals belts out a love ballad over the loudspeaker, I shiver in my sundress under the industrial-strength air conditioning. We walk past the bulk cereal section. Tall plastic canisters filled with the generic brands of Cheerios, Wheaties, and Raisin Bran are mounted against the wall. When my dad isn’t looking, I pull on the lever of the dispenser for the faux Lucky Charms and stuff an achingly sweet handful into my mouth. My personal mission is to taste each of the over two dozen cereals over our shopping trips.
As I catch up to my dad, I spot something spectacular – a pizza making kit complete with a wad of puffy white dough, a packet of red sauce, a bag of shredded mozzarella, and a tube of those wonderfully salty meat circles. The box glows under the fluorescent lights as angels singing overhead. I pull my dad away from the meat aisle, where he’s diligently searching for cuts of pork with imminent expiration dates, ones that are discounted to his satisfaction.
“Dad, look here – it’s pizza! Remember, I told you about it? They served it at school and it’s so delicious. Have you had it?” I ask circuitously, “I think we can make our own with this box. Isn’t that nice?” When it comes to spending money, I know better than to make frivolous requests but with the stakes so high, I have to go out on a limb. My dad picks up the box and instinctively flips it around to assess the damage. His brows furrow ominously.
“We don’t need this,” my dad announces. After watching my face crumble, he follows up with an addendum, “What I mean is we don’t need this to make pizza. Daddy will make you pizza today. And it will be the best pizza you’ve ever tasted!” I wistfully place the pizza kit back on the shelf and sullenly follow him around the store as he picks up what he thinks we need. When we get home, my dad enthusiastically dives into the task at hand. The thought of consulting a recipe book never crosses his mind.
“We are from Lianoing province in the north, and it’s the dough capital of China,” my dad boasts. “A little pizza dough is nothing compared to China’s millenniums of culinary tradition that we’ve inherited.”
After quickly mixing some flour and water, he starts to knead the dough with confidence, much in the same way he does when making dumplings or green onion pancakes. I watch with cautious optimism since he seems to know what he’s doing. In a few short hours, we’ll learn first hand that when you skip the yeast in your pizza dough, it comes out dry, brittle, and tough as a cracker.
After he rolls the dough out into an oblong oval, he grabs a bottle of ketchup from the fridge. My entire body tenses as I watch him squeeze the bottle while making criss-cross motions, a thick stream of paste falling onto the innocent dough. When he’s through, he pauses to admire the Jackson Pollock splatters of red.
“Are you sure that’s the right sauce?” I ask, even though it’s already too late.
“Don’t you worry, I am very sure! Americans love to put this ketchup on everything they eat,” he reassures me as he gives the bottle a final generous squeeze for good measure. After a few dashes of salt and pepper, my dad improvises further with a light sprinkle of soy sauce.
Next, he shifts his attention to a bright yellow block of cheddar on the cutting board, chosen over its shredded counterpart for a few dimes of savings. Gadgets of convenience, like graters and whisks, have no place in our home. With the use of the cleaver, the only tool a Chinese cook ever needs, my dad carves off several healthy chunks of cheese, pieces so large that they will fail to melt completely in the oven.
Then, celery. My experience with pizza was limited but vegetables had yet to make an appearance, especially not one so dangerously fibrous that it could disrupt the harmony of the dough, cheese, and sauce. My dad dices a few celery stalks, tosses them into a bowl, and instructs me to scatter them on the dough. After I carefully select a few of the smallest pieces and gingerly place them on top of the cheese, I hide the bowl behind a cereal box on the table.
“Aiya, that’s not enough,” my dad chides. “Your mom will be upset again that I’m not feeding you enough vegetables.”
He swiftly picks up the bowl and tosses handful after handful of celery, raining bright green offenders upon our frankensteinian creation. As a finishing touch, he adds a layer of sliced kielbasa. I squint my eyes hard and tell myself they can pass as pepperonis.
Ding! Our oven timer goes off, and my dad and I scurry back into the kitchen. I hold my breath as he opens the oven door. Our pizza looks nothing like any I’ve seen before. The ketchup had hardened into a worrisome brownish-red on the cardboard-textured dough, the yellow cheese sat it in sad lumps on top, and the celery and kielbasa had burnt into a dismal crisp.
As I hold out hope that our pizza might taste better than it looks, my dad cuts it into eight slices, dropping the largest one onto my plate. I take a bite. My taste buds are assaulted by a cacophony of discordant flavors. My mouth endures strange, unpleasurable textures. I look up at my dad, who doesn’t notice anything is askew.
“What do you think?” he asks without waiting for my answer. “Not bad right? The dough needs some work but I think we did a great job. Eat as much as you can,” he gestures at the remaining slices. “Don’t worry about saving any for your mom. She’s having dinner at work today.”
I imagine yelling at my dad, “This isn’t good. It’s terrible! It’s gross! Have you ever had pizza? We should’ve just bought the pizza kit! You’ve been here longer – shouldn’t you know more than me?”
But I don’t. I nod and chew quietly, hoping he doesn’t realize that the girl with the insatiable hunger has lost her appetite.
Deanna Dong is a writer living in San Francisco. She is a marketer by day and always thinking about her next meal.
Photo: Alan Hardman/Unsplash