Rhubarb’s Ruby Submission

Note: This won the 2013 IACP Bert Greene Journalism Award. It was a pain to write. It was about what I think of as an Irish ingredient, which I then digested in terms of my Chinese father and my English stepdad. Enjoy!

Hard, acid rhubarb reliably softens with heat. If only people did the same

When I was young, my Chinese father ate the pokeweed that was growing in our garden, insisting that it was rhubarb. He vomited for two days straight. He didn’t even like rhubarb; he was just trying to prove a point, objecting to my mother spending money on something that he believed was already in our backyard. The irony is that my mother was probably cooking so much rhubarb because she was having an affair with a man who loved it. Rhubarb is my English stepfather Jonathan’s favorite food, stewed with sugar. The episode was one of the ways in which their relationship poisoned my dad.

 

My mother could not have chosen to fall in love with two more different men. One was a Chinese engineer who drank Miller Lite, the other, an English historian who preferred wine. My father was blunt, with a violent temper, a maelstrom in a five-foot four frame. Jonathan is tall, gentle, and diffident. But while my father confronted the world head-on, my stepfather would rather hide from the more disquieting things in life. Now, when I see rhubarb in the market, green striped with red like a vegetal candy cane, I think of these two men in my life, and my mind hearkens to love and its accompanying astringency.

Raw rhubarb is fibrous, blisteringly acid to taste, and its leaves are toxic. 5,000 years ago, the Tibetans and the Chinese started using rhubarb as a laxative, and it hung around for several thousand years without being considered an actual food. It was only in the 18th century that the English started baking it into tarts.

Trust the English, who are in many ways the masters of both pudding and perversity, to take something so unpalatable and turn it into dessert. (I am sure that my father, who blamed England for much of what is wrong with the world, would have had something to say about the subject.) The English love rhubarb. They have rhubarb jelly, rhubarb tart, rhubarb crumble, and rhubarb jam, rhubarb boiled sweets . 1960s English radio broadcasters murmured the phrase “rhubarb-rhubarb” to duplicate the sound of a crowd. These days, in England, if someone is saying something that you don’t want to hear, you stick your fingers in your ears, and instead of saying “la-la-la,” you say, “rhubarb-rhubarb.”

I also love rhubarb, and the way that its dazzling color heralds spring. I love its ruby submission when I cut it up and simmer it gently in the pot with nutmeg, vanilla, and Burgundy. To be honest, I liked it when my mother was making deep-dish strawberry rhubarb pies all those years ago, but never understood the fuss. When I turned my back on my Chinese father, though, I adopted some of my English stepfather’s culinary tastes, and with all the toast, soft boiled eggs, kedgeree there came a passion for rhubarb.

Rhubarb is an unwieldy purchase—tall, too bulky, and I know that when I bring it home I have a lot of work to do. I tend to like to watch as it succumbs from crisp to velvet, leaking its blood red fluid. The wonderful thing about rhubarb is once you’ve accepted its spiky nature, it’s easy to prepare. You toss it with some sugar, and let the heat do the rest. I like it in my oatmeal, as a side with my meat (it is like a Western version of sweet-and-sour sauce, for it makes you pucker), as a quick crumble. I have liked it with berries, added with the rhubarb while it cooks or scattered in at the end, but these days I prefer my rhubarb pure. I also stir in a few cubes of butter, for the silkiness.

The last time I was preparing rhubarb—as a sauce for duck, and then spooned over yogurt the next morning for breakfast—I found myself singing the Pete Seeger song “Goodnight, Irene.” When I was growing up, my parents used to love those hippie folk ballads, and “Goodnight Irene” was one of the most soothing tunes I knew. It was my personal lullaby.

I would murmur the lyrics to myself before I went to sleep, without realizing that they were about suicide and despair. “Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I take the great notion/to jump in the river and drown.” Gentle melody with an underlying rue is what rhubarb is about. You may give in to rhubarb’s lushness, but you cannot escape that what you are eating was originally a hard and sour thing.

But maybe this is what I love about rhubarb: It reminds me that life is full of surprises. Who would have thought that rhubarb could mellow in the way that it does? For years, the relationship between my two fathers was a sour and nearly bloody thing. The antagonism came from my father, who would frequently threaten to shoot Jonathan, who would then hide. Then, suddenly, long after my mother had remarried, my father sweetened. We were at the wake of an old family friend and my father walked up to Jonathan with his hand extended. He still loved the woman that Jonathan had taken away, and yet at the age of fifty, he was willing to forgive them both. My father said, as he shook my stepfather’s hand, “Well, I just decided that life was too short.” And when my father was killed in a motorcycle accident, it was his former rival, Jonathan, who organized his funeral.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that, when I find myself preparing more rhubarb than usual, I also find myself about to fall in love with someone unreliable. After all, rhubarb starts appearing in spring, when the sun is out, the leaves are budding. I am not generally a fan of love; my childhood made me wary. Still, from time to time my normally acerbic self becomes wont to soften and even to bleed. With rhubarb, you can take something with so many defenses and melt it into something gentle. It rarely works in human relationships, but thank goodness that with rhubarb, there is a formula. So as for the rest of my life? Rhubarb-rhubarb, I would rather not know.

 

I Feared You, Cilantro, and Now I love You Too Much

Note: I wrote two pieces two years ago for Gilttaste.com, and feel like they best encapsulate my experience with growing up Chinese in a Western world. They were both nominated for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Bert Greene Journalism award. Rhubarb won.  I suppose these are vanity posts, as these are the favourite pieces I have ever written. My editor for them was the priceless Francis Lam. Kwanghi and I will post cilantro/coriander and rhubarb recipes soon. — Mei Chin

CHINESE PARENTS ARE LIARS. If for instance, you do not like carrots, your parent will not say, “Eat that carrot, maybe this time you’ll like it.” Instead you will hear: “That’s not a carrot.” Once, when a customs officer caught my father sneaking (an undeclared) wedge of pungent Camembert in his luggage, he said, without skipping a beat, “Oh, I had no idea that cheese was a food.” At the dinner table, every declaration he made was to be regarded with suspicion. “Of course that’s not spinach,” he’d say. Once, he said to me at a banquet, “Look! They’ve made that chicken look like a turtle.” (It was turtle, as I found out afterwards.)

As a child there was not a lot I wouldn’t try. Pig’s ears, tripe, onions; raw fish, kidneys, garlic – they all slid down my gullet without my complaint. The exception was cilantro. It is a very pretty herb, a more fragile, intricate version of parsley; the leaves are like snowflakes, miniature and brilliant green, nodding on pale jade stems. The Chinese name for cilantro is xiang-cai, or fragrant vegetable. For nearly 20 years, I regarded it the most evil flavor in the world.

The author, as a girl, with her father and brother
Me, my father, my brother

Although I wasn’t a picky eater, when I hated something, it was with an aversion that bordered on despair. The faintest whiff and I would run, gagging, from the room. And cilantro was everywhere. Taiwanese cooking is categorized by the punch of dried oysters and fish sauce, and laced with cilantro throughout. It has a pungent, carrying power—it transfers itself onto silverware and onto skin. I’d pick up a bunch, thinking it was parsley, and smell it on my fingers for what seemed like days afterwards. Worse, it wormed its way into my favorite dishes. Ubiquitously feathered onto roast duck and braised pig belly, it was threaded in with cool, slippery jellyfish salads, and it lurked inside shrimp wontons.

The leaves are like snowflakes, nodding on pale jade stems. I regarded it the most evil flavor in the world.

My father’s strategy was to insist that it was never there. If he went out of his way to point out that a dish had no cilantro, I could taste it—pungent, poisonous, even if there was in fact none. My mother had a poetic explanation for my dislike. She insisted that cilantro was a coming-of-age herb, and a love of its flavor came with the onset of adulthood. She said she didn’t like it herself until she was older. Cilantro, in other words, was puberty of the palate. I thought this was, too, a ruse, for the sure way to get any child to try anything was to assert that they are not grown-up enough to appreciate it.

The rest of my childhood was typical. I played and I studied. I was also cooking, whipping up bread on weekend mornings, mixing chocolate chip cookies and coffee cake in the afternoons, and making chicken cacciatore for my little brother when my parents were working late. I made a lot of messes, dreamily inhabiting the universes mapped out by Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, and the Joy of Cooking, and none of my cooking gurus had any use for cilantro. (Later, I heard that Julia Child would extract it from her plate and throw it on the floor.)

The author with her brother

Then when I was 13, I learned that my mother had been having an affair with another man. This resulted in an ugly separation process that lasted throughout my high school years: The betrayal; then the masquerade that my father insisted upon, that we carry on as a loving family. It was a masquerade endorsed by everyone, including, shockingly, by my mother. Suddenly, the adult world was a web of compromises and barely veiled lies; doors that were closed for the sake of propriety, but that could barely contain the battles behind them. Then I went to college, got drunk and slept with someone for the first time, and felt betrayed by the realization that sex and intoxication, too, would have to be acquired tastes. If this was the grown-up world, I wanted nothing to do with its flavor.

When I turned 19—incidentally, the age that my mother married my father—I read Under the Jaguar Sun, a novella by Italo Calvino. I was in my last year in college, living a life of willful restraint and uncomfortable indulgence, and I became enthralled with this story: Two people, who have long stopped speaking, rekindle their passion at the dinner table, excited by the idea of consuming each other. I had never read anything quite so sensuous, grim or gustatory, before or since. It was unspeakably romantic.

“Did you taste that? Are you tasting it?” she was asking me, with a kind of anxiety, as if at that same moment our incisors had pierced an identically composed morsel and the same drop of savor had been caught by the membranes of my tongue and hers.

If this was the grown-up world, I wanted nothing to do with its flavor.

“Is it cilantro? Can’t you taste cilantro?” she insisted, referring to an herb… of which a little thread of the morsel we were chewingsufficed to transmit to the nostrils a sweetly pungent emotion, like an impalpable intoxication.

Passion is a perverse thing, and the happiest love story was the one in which two people eat each other alive. Yet to be part of that adult, destructive realm of feelings was something, I realized upon reading Calvino, that I suddenly desired. A lot happened after reading Jaguar Sun. I started to dream about Mexican cooking—the decadent, courtly variety that had yet to find its way to New England, where I lived—of chiles en nogado and elaborate moles. I became passionate about avocados, which up until then I had always regarded as rather tasteless, until I saw what Calvino described as their “fat softness.” But mostly, as I lay in my dormitory bed, tossing under the sheets, the flavor that filled my mind was that of cilantro, sweet and pungent. Suddenly, one morning, Iwoke longing to cram fistfuls of the stuff, fresh, into my mouth. I walked over to the university market and picked up a bunch, slightly wilted, and walked home with it, clutching it in my hands like a bouquet, burying my face in its scent. I chopped it and stirred it into some mashed avocado, and ran my finger across the knife blades and sucked the shreds off of my fingertip. From being cilantro adverse, I went to being cilantro mad.

The author, today
Me as a cilantro loving adult.

The food writer Harold McGee points out that cilantro has several fat molecules called aldehydes which can also be found in lye (used to make soap) and bugs. McGee asserts that the aversion to this flavor can be overcome gradually, one dab of cilantro pesto at a time. But I was not a McGee cilantro hater. Rather, the flavor that I had despised as a child became the same exact flavor that I craved, and the transition happened, literally, overnight. Now, for the past decade, the herb stands in a glass of water in my refrigerator, perfuming the food that I keep in it. I know two cilantro haters of the McGee variety. To my shame, I smuggle it into dishes that I serve them, just as my father might have done when I was a child. When they compliment me, I nod, smug as a cat.

Cilantro, I have realized, has always held a certain power over my life; before because I feared it, and now because I love it too much. I eat cilantro mixed with celery, tofu, and sesame and scrambled into eggs for breakfast. The stems I mince and leave in cold oil to gradually heat until it yields its special flavor, and then use to coat chicken or lamb. Then I have it raw, its leaves folded over into a ball, and pop into my mouth as a snack.

And so it turns out that my mother was, in fact, right when she said that cilantro would be my coming-of-age, that in embracing adulthood and all its shades and shadows, I would love it too.  I can begin to forgive my parents for the lies they told me in my childhood, and to realize that some of the most important parts of life are not necessarily the ones that are the most moral or the most clear.

I am talking to my friend who is also Chinese. “Cilantro,” she says, “Well, sometimes there can just be too much of it, you know?” There is a pause. She says, “I guess that’s not true in your case.” In fact, I am thinking of how I will use it next. Tonight, it is cold and rainy, and I am alone. I will stew it with lentils and let the flavor heat me, and relish its fresh and always complicated savor.

I reply, “You never knew me when I was young.”