Sunday, June 20, 2010

Original Fiction: My Father's Legacy

My father’s favorite place has always been the kitchen. On the days when he was home, the scent of coriander wafted through the air with an invisible smoke that caressed my nose. The sizzle of vegetables in oil filled the tiny galley. Dad whipped eggs with a strong hand and sliced onions and zucchini with a master’s confidence. I watched him at his own private dance, as he moved from stove to counter and back again.

"Can I help, Dad?" I asked him, time and time again.

His answer was always the same. "No, just watch for now. You can learn a lot by watching, you know."

So I watched, the desire to copy him tingled through my fingers. He contended that the old apprentices spent years watching their masters, until the masters judged they were ready for the first step. They wanted to make sure the need to create was there. Sometimes that took years. My father was of the old school. Tradition needed to be preserved.

Eventually, he allowed me to boil the water, chop the vegetables, and scrub the cutting boards. As we worked side by side, he told me about his father. Ming Tsao had been a personal chef for one of the wealthiest families in China. Ming Tsao’s father, and his father before him stood over their apprentices in the same way. I listened to these tales as the luscious smells rose from the ovens.

We presented the family with dishes of spiced beef in brown sauce. Dad arranged red, green, and orange peppers in geometric patterns. The dishes, such as bok choy in broth and noodles mixed with carrots and beans, were unveiled at the dinner table with great fanfare.

Mom looked at the spectacular array and shook her head. "Too much," she pronounced. "It’s too much." Then she picked up the chopsticks and ate anyway.

Dad always cooked enough to feed a thousand armies. It was his way of taking care of us. No one noticed as age crept up on him. The supple fingers still worked their magic, but his dance slowed, much like an old clock winding down. Finally, he taught me to make soups and main courses, as well as appetizers and desserts. As I was making dumplings for a party, he stood there, just watching me. This time, the light burned within his dark eyes and a smile trembled on his lips. He walked forward and laid a hand on my shoulder.

"You are ready," he said. Then we went to check on the sweet-and-sour fish in the oven.
The party was a success, but somehow, I knew it was the beginning of the end. My father’s limbs shook like rushing leaves. He forgot where he kept his special spices and ingredients. 

More than once, I turned off the oven after he was finished baking, because he did not remember that he had left it on. He came to the kitchen less frequently, until he could only stand there at the door, an old king surveying his kingdom. Dad needed to pass the kingdom to the next generation, but until then, he reigned.

One night, Dad asked for a simple bowl of broth. I added extra mushrooms and onions, just as he liked it. He finished the entire bowl and put it aside. Then he called Mom into the room and whispered something into her ear. She gazed at him with a questioning look.

"Are you sure?" she asked in Cantonese.

"Yes," he replied.

She left the room, but quickly returned with a simple, worn, wooden box. The gold leaf on the lid no longer shone in the lights. I recognized the characters etched into the side of the box. Ming Tsao. It was the name of Dad’s father, my grandfather, the esteemed chef of the family.
Mom gave him the box with the reverence of a priestess. He carefully blew the dust off the lid and traced the characters. Then he looked up at me. Again, I saw that burning light in his face, and I realized that light was the only thing that kept my father alive.

"I give this to you," he said in a formal tone. "It will help you."

I accepted the box with the same gravity. My hands shook as I touched a piece of family history. Mom stifled an audible sob as she said, "Open it, Mei. See what is inside."

I slid the cover off the box. Folded pieces of parchment lined the inside of it. They surrounded a stack of cards written in Chinese. I held one up to the light; it read "Szechwan chicken." 

They were recipes, all in my grandfather’s hand. I bowed my head in gratitude.

"There is more," Dad said. He pointed out all the additions and revisions he had made over the years. Black and white photographs were scattered among the recipes. One of the photos showed my father as a young man, standing next to another man who was my grandfather. There was a strong resemblance between the two. Dad kept meticulous notes on every party he had catered, and ever new dish he had tried. It was as if the years had finally granted him permission to share his vast knowledge. Why had he held back all these years?

"I wanted to make sure you wanted to continue the tradition," he explained. "I wanted to make sure you had the choice."

Tears streamed down my mother’s face. I noticed she held my father’s hand while he talked. I felt a definite sense of finality in the air with the passing on of those traditions. I reached over, took his other hand, and brought it to my lips. He smiled as I said, "Thank you, Father."

He nodded and said, "Go to bed now."

I took the precious box with me. That night, I spent hours looking through every card and every photograph. They were the ingredients of my father’s life story. There was so much to absorb; it would take me a lifetime. I did not mind. It was like food for my soul, the encouragement to further my dreams.

Mom came to my room at dawn. She did not have to say a word. I knew.

In the cold light of sunrise, I crept down to the kitchen. Soon, the word would spread and the house would be filled with visitors. But now, I turned on the flame of the burners and poured oil in the wok. The smoke rose to meet my father’s spirit as I cooked, and tears sizzled in the heat.

copyright 2006 by Annie Dameron

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