Monthly Archives: January 2007

Rules of Engagement

Technically, this story is an observation to illustrate the difference between a "high context" society and a "low context" society.  In a low context society, everyone knows the rules and follows them:  you drive on x side of the road, you drive x speed, you put your garbage out on the street no earlier than 6 PM and you bring the empty can in by 6 AM.  You don’t let leaves accumulate on your sidewalk.  Meetings begin punctually.  Whatever.  Such cultures can be perceived as "formal" and "rigid." 

Germany is often given as an example of a low context culture.  One simply follows the rules, no matter what the surrounding circumstances (context).  One example I’ve heard of is a German who will wait for the green pedestrian arrow before crossing the road, even at 3 AM when there isn’t a single car on the road.  Everyone follows the rules, and everyone can count on everyone else following the rules.  There is comfort in knowing that all the houses will have swept sidewalks, and discomfort when someone doesn’t follow that rule. 

In a high context society, in contrast, the "rules" are suggestions rather than directives.  They are more like guidelines, to be followed when it’s convenient and ignored when inconvenient, all giving great weight to the "context."  China is an example of a high context culture.  Not as high context as some, but fairly high up there.  (My personal theory is that the closer you are to the equator, the more high context the culture becomes.)  I’ve read that of all groups of expats, Germans have the most difficulty, overall, adapting to Chinese culture.  My German friends here have told me they find this culture very uncomfortably messy, dirty, chaotic.  Especially Southern China. 

The traffic in a low context culture is nicely regulated.  Everyone drives the correct speed, in the correct lanes, and follows the correct rules when they want to turn.  America falls in the middle of the spectrum, but toward the low context side.  People speed on the highway, but they know it’s wrong.  Americans get upset when you cut in front of them in line, even if they were leaving way too much space as they gossiped with their friend. 

Here, in contrast, the traffic resembles a tricycle rally for three year olds, or perhaps a crowded preteen roller rink on a Saturday afternoon.  The cars generally go in the proper direction, but lane marks are meaningless and it is not unusual to see a car driving on the wrong side of the street or the wrong way on a one way street, going flat against the direction of traffic.  It’s not unusual for a car to cut across four lanes of traffic, in the process of its turning right from the far left lane.  Traffic lights signal right of way, but drivers may not stop if they see no reason to stop. 

Last night I witnessed something that illustrated this to an extent that was startling even to me.  First of all, it is startling to find that in a communist society, some are literally more equal than others.  But that is clearly the case.  Military cars not only have black tinted windows and special license tags to proclaim their status, but they also have special horns used to announce their presence.  Status rather than standing governs who gives way on a China road.  I’ve been told that ordinary drivers have no respect for ambulances and won’t give way, so it’s better to just call a taxi if you are injured rather than wait for an ambulance.  In contrast, every car on the road melts away from the path of a military car. 

Last night, I was standing at a busy intersection.  One moderately large road that is "one way" in the northbound direction intersects another large road that goes east and west.  Almost every car from the northbound road needs to turn right, to go east on the east west road.  Cars line up in all four northbound lanes of the one way road, and then they squeeze themselves into the two eastbound lanes of the second road.  They do this by cutting into each other, and also often by creating traffic that is three lanes thick on space that is marked with two lanes.  All "in context," meaning: "as the situation allows."   In other words, picture four lanes turning right onto a road that has two lanes marked to go in that direction.  The four lanes somehow merge into three, and then gradually traffic thins down to two lanes. 

Well, I was standing at the corner of that intersection when I heard the familiar military car horn announcing its presence, signaling all other drivers on the road to move over.  Not really believing my ears, I looked up in astonishment to see the military car turning southward onto the one-way, northbound street!  Not only was the military car having the gall to go the wrong way on a one way street, but it did this while four lanes of northbound cars were all stopped for the traffic light, completely blocking the road.  As I watched, four lanes of stopped cars somehow wiggled themselves around to make room for the military car to cut through them, like a barracuda cutting through a school of minnows.  The "rules" were clearly guidelines, broken as circumstances allowed. 

Another example of "rules" that are broken whenever they become inconvenient is the road in front of my children’s school, and my own driver.  The lane in front of the school is very narrow, allowing only one lane of traffic to pass comfortably.  Of course, there is a safety issue as well.  Almost every school with a "carpool line" enforces a one way traffic policy so that children are dropped off from the passenger side of the car onto the sidewalk.  This way, children don’t have to cross any lanes of traffic to get from their car into school.  But there are always idiots who don’t follow this rule.  Including at my kids school in the USA.  But the usual transgression in the USA is the SUV Mom who tries to "cut in front," not a mom who tries to enter at the one-way exit gate.  

One morning, as I took J to school, I watched as one Chinese driver tried to inch his way the wrong direction up the one way, one lane road.  He finally (thankfully) gave up, but only after causing a colossal traffic jam and after the Chinese security guard came and told him to go the other way.  And of course he only backed out after arguing with the security guard, much animated gesticulating.  My thought was, "Idiot!  Get with the program!" 

So imagine my embarrassment last week when I needed to pick J up early, was out in the car, and so had the driver take me to the school.  (This was the same day as the lunch I wrote about a few days ago.)  Driving very fast, the driver surprised me by turning a block too soon.  "Surely," I thought to myself, "he is not going to try and go the wrong way on the one way street."  Wrong!

Song Ying was with me.  I said (in Chinese) "It’s not allowed to go this way!"  She says, "Oh, no problem."  As we got to the small street, I reply (pointing with my hand), "No, see the signs. No entry."  (There were "no entry" signs, with big "x" marks, spaced across the intersection, blocking all but one part of it where cars could squeeze out the exit to the road.)  "Oh, no problem," she replies, as the driver passes through the no entry signs barricading the exit of the one way street, "No people here."  (Meaning, no security guards yet posted at the exit, to enforce the rule.) 

American businesses:  take heed!  You may not get it yet, but you will.  Rules, contracts, whatever.  It’s all a matter of context, expediency, and convenience.  Don’t take it for granted that any rules will be followed.  For, if you do, you may be in for a nasty surprise.  Every aspect of every transaction must be personally policed to make sure the rules are followed.  Don’t say you haven’t been warned! 

For more reading on this subject, I recommend the book "Beyond Culture" by Edward T. Hall. 

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The Culinary High Dive

Certain experiences are so strongly part of every day life that I bump up against them harder and more often.  Thus, I write about them more.  Food is one of those things.   

I’m not sure if I have described my first experience of dining in China, in July of 2004.  It was one of my first meals in the country, and I was looking forward to sampling real Chinese cuisine.  Moreover, I was in a new culture, with a new friend.  I was eager not to do anything improper or revolting.  Imagine my horror, when I realized I had taken a bite of something that had a bone square in the middle of it.  Well, not even just one bone, a lot of tiny little bones.  Hmm.  What to do.  Well, in  China it’s not a problem.  Indeed, my Chinese friends, when puzzling over why Americans "don’t like bones," are invariably astounded when I tell them that in America, it is considered rude not to swallow everything one puts in one’s mouth, and thus very awkward when one inadvertently gets a bone or other inedible thing in one’s mouth.  I rather enjoy the look of astonishment I get when I reveal this secret about "why Americans don’t like bones!" 

A Chinese table setting is completely different from a Western one.  First of all, there is a small cup for tea.  Second, there is a small bowl for one’s food.  Rice is spooned first into the bowl, and then food from other dishes is laid on top of the rice.  (As they are eaten together, the rice underneath soaks up sauce and flavor from the food on top.)  Third, there are chopsticks, and often a spoon, to eat with.  Fourth, is a very small plate that nothing is served on.  I call this the spit plate.  Everybody uses it, with no hesitation or self consciousness.  Nobody looks around furtively, to see if anyone will observe them spit the food out.  Nobody uses a napkin to cover their mouth.  Nobody is watching because nobody cares:  It’s just expected that when a person gleans all the nutritious stuff out of the food he has put in his mouth, he will spit the remainder out onto the spit plate.  It’s a sure sign that someone is a westerner if he serves food onto, or eats it off of, his spit plate! 

I have gradually become accustomed to using the spit plate for things I don’t want to swallow.  In fact, I no longer think anything of it.  One day, Sophie and I had gotten take out lunch at a cheap stall (three dishes and a rice for 5 RMB).  We were standing up eating our lunches, and she burst out laughing for no reason.  Puzzled, I asked her why she was laughing.  She replied, "You’re eating just like a Chinese person!"  Even my family has noticed.  One day last year, when we were eating something, somewhere, I heard C say (in an exasperated, teenager voice), "Mom, You CAN’T DO THAT IN THE UNITED STATES!"  I assured her I didn’t plan to adopt those eating habits in the USA.  But, I admit, once the habit is acquired it’s hard to switch back to American notions of propriety.  

I rather enjoy the very casual, happy atmosphere of a table full of people reaching across the table to get food out of dishes, serving each other food, serving each other hot tea in tiny cups, elbows on table, leaning over plates, slurping rice out of bowls, and spitting bones out.  The ambience reminds me a bit of the casual atmosphere of the USA restaurants where peanut hulls are thrown on the floor, or the low country boil places and crab shacks of the Eastern seaboard where the trash is thrown into holes in the middle of the tables.  Fairly often, an attentive waiter will come around and change out the plates. 

A lot of stuff gets spit out onto the plate, but a lot doesn’t.  Cartilage, skin, soft parts of bones, basically anything that can be chewed up and digested, are not discarded.  The culinary challenge of my first two years in China was to feel comfortable using the spit plate.  The challenge of my third year in China has been to learn to appreciate the wider variety of taste and texture than is found in American cuisine, and to use the plate for less. 

For the first two years I lived here, I theorized that people don’t waste any part of the animal because they cannot afford to waste protein and nutrition.  I try to be conscientious and not waste, but I’m not so frugal that I resort to eating bones.  In the USA, where everyone is fat (yes, we know it), fat is not desirable to eat.  Here, where nobody is fat, fat is food energy.  Nutrition.  Fat is good.  Chicken feet, with tasty skin and fat, sell for more money here than chicken breast.  I knew my youngest child had been socialized to live in China when she announced she wanted just one more bite of that good chicken, reached across, and used her chopsticks to take the tastiest piece of skin.  The older have never eaten the skin; we just didn’t do it.  

My Chinese teacher Xue Li told me that Chinese people enjoy the texture of bones much the same way that we Americans enjoy the texture of popcorn.  "It’s interesting," she said.  Still, I held to my protein theory.  That is, until about four months ago.  Something gradually began to change in my attitude, and it all began with a comment that Sophie made during lunch one day. 

We shared a lunch one day that, of course, included a dish that had bones in it.  My habit has been to rather gingerly nibble at the meat, and then use my chopsticks to get rid of the part I don’t want.  I’ve perfected the ability to hold the morsel in my chopsticks and nibble at it, rather than putting the whole thing in my mouth.  Of course the subject switched to bones at some point.  Sophie made the comment, "We think a little bit of bone is good for you."  

"WHAT?!! Eureka!"  A light bulb is flashing in my imagination!  I’m exactly the kind of nerd who reads the types of scientific journals that report about things like . . .  studies concerning why Asian women have less osteoporosis, even though they don’t drink milk.  Over the years since I’ve been an adult, there has been speculation in "the literature," and studies, concerning genetics, nutrition, and combinations of nutrition.  There have been studies about soy in the Asian diet (a stereotype not necessarily true), low fat in the Asian diet (a stereotype not necessarily true), the high protein / low fat Japanese diet . . . you name it.  Out of curiosity, I found a study just the other day of Hong Kong women trying to link soy protein to menopause differences. 

But as every cultural anthropologist knows, there is always a danger that we fail to account for the lense through which we see the world:  we may spend an hour looking for our glasses, only to find that they are sitting right on our nose.  How many people designing those studies, trying to figure out why Asian women don’t get osteoporosis, realize that Asian women suck on bones?  And here Sophie is, telling me, "We think it’s good for you." 

That explains bones.  It doesn’t explain shrimp shells. 

Shrimp shells have been a complete mystery to me.  The first week I was ever in China, I was served tiny shrimp fried whole and served as an appetizer, very much like popcorn in texture and size.  In those, the shell was soft to start with and fried crispy.  But I couldn’t rationalize why much larger, huskier shrimp are served the same way.  Even worse, they are usually split down the back, which makes them even harder to peel, and there is sauce poured all over them in the kitchen.  Why not wait until after you peel the shrimp to put the sauce on them?  The first time I ever ate shrimp with Sophie, I told her Americans don’t eat the heads.  She replied, "We don’t, either."  "Soooo," I wanted to ask, "Exactly which part are you eating right now?" Because it definitely appeared that she was nibbling at the head.  Shrimp are served not only with the head, but with feet and tail.  It just doesn’t make sense!   

The answer came from my friend Mike.  One day at lunch, as we both struggled to peel our shrimp, I puzzled aloud over this mystery.  He told me that shrimp shells are the main ingredient in glucosamine chondroitin — the supplement people take to supply nutrition to aging cartilage.  Another eureka moment!  I’ve never looked at shrimp shells the same way since.  Indeed, on that particular day at lunch, I realized that much of the shrimp shell was fried so crispy that it was quite crunchy, not soggy or chewy at all.  I began to nibble at my shrimp the same way Sophie did, eating the crunchiest parts of the shell but leaving the chewy or tough parts.  I noticed that when the backs are split, as these were, this nibbling process becomes much easier. 

But, yesterday was the true, culinary high dive.  I went to lunch with Sophie and her friend, May.  Knowing that I love shrimp, they ordered shrimp in Magi sauce.  The shrimp that came were medium sized, heads and tails attached as always, fried crispy with a sauce poured over top.  I sat across the table from May.  I saw her pick up one shrimp.  She held it with her chopstick by both head and tail, so that the back was exposed like a U.  Then she neatly bit the back off, eating the middle part shell and all.  Once the middle was gone, the tail and head were still in the grip of the chopsticks, easily discarded onto the spit plate.  (Although May confided that she eats the head, too, something I won’t try because of my decision before I came here not to eat any parts of a central nervous system.) 

I decided to imitate May’s perfect technique.  It worked like a charm.  The shell was crunchy like fried rice noodles, the shrimp mild, and the sauce delicious.  More importantly, I felt nothing offensive in my mouth, just crunchiness.  It was so much easier to eat it without shelling it, that I probably half of the shrimp myself (also because they were so good!), completely astonished at the fact that I was actually eating shrimp shells and enjoying it.  That’s when I figured I had jumped off the high dive. 

Well, not quite.  Today, we were out for lunch, while running errands, and our driver ordered a mystery dish.  It was really tasty, and everyone said it was chicken.  The meat was all white meat, the bones seemed much too small to be chicken, and it didn’t really taste like chicken.  I made them tell me four times at various points during the meal that it was not cat. 

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Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits

It was a family ritual during my childhood:   Exactly 20 minutes before dinner was due to be served, my mother would finish cooking.  Then, she would prepare and bake biscuits.  While the biscuits baked, she would clean the kitchen.  Then, the biscuits would come out of the oven just a few moments before everyone was expected to sit down to the table.   

When the biscuits came out, the table would already be set for dinner.  My father would be called – urgently — to butter the biscuits.  Everything had to be done exactly punctually.  If the biscuits came out of the oven too soon, they would get cold.  If they came out too late, the rest of the food would be cold.  If they weren’t buttered when they were so hot that they would burn fingers, they would be too cold.  Success in dinner preparation was determined largely by whether the biscuits were served to perfection. 

My role in the biscuit ritual was to “help,” namely to turn the oven on to preheat, to transfer the biscuits from the cutting board to the cookie sheet for baking, to set the table, and then to assist in carrying the piping hot biscuits to the table.  Of course, this also involved watching my mother measure, sift, mix, knead and roll the biscuit dough.  I guess I was supposed to learn through osmosis, though it never worked. 

My mom always told me it was important not to work the dough too much, because it would make the biscuits tough.  She contrasted this need for sparcity in working biscuit dough as against working yeast bread dough, because the latter gets more pliable and soft with kneading.  She said you should keep kneading of biscuit dough to a bare minimum.  Her routine for making the dough and rolling out the biscuits took about five minutes, then the baking took about twelve minutes, and leaving three a three minute window to get them onto the table and buttered before everyone sat down to eat. 

I really took this admonition to heart, not to work the dough too much.  My home economics teacher taught our class how to make biscuits, but her instructions included that we should knead the dough.  My mother was very critical of this advice.  Based on the teacher’s accent, we already knew the teacher was a Yankee.  This hereditary condition would explain a whole host of mental imbalances and defects, including why she didn’t know how to make biscuits properly.  My mom assured me that my home economics teacher was wrong; and she took great pains to demonstrate for me proper biscuit making technique without kneading the dough.  I could never get it right.   

Strive as I might, my dough was always either too sticky or too dry, never that perfect balance.  One time, many years later but while I was still young and single, I cooked an elaborate “Southern” dinner for a friend visiting from another country.  When she saw the table I had set, filled with Confederate fried steak, rice, gravy, green beans, butter peas, carrots, and assorted other delights, she exclaimed with delight, “Oh! You made cookies!”  No, I had made biscuits, which were on the table in their own little basket, butter close by; but my biscuits were not soft and light and fluffy.  They were crispy and brown, like crackers.  Such was the miserable result of my best efforts.  Perhaps this was the reason my grandmother Mary Emma gave me the recipe for the mayonnaise drop biscuits (an earlier Blog entry).  She perhaps hoped that my possession of this one recipe would save me from calamity in the Art of Being a Southern Belle.  

After my “cookie” adventure, I didn’t try to make biscuits for several more years.  Law school intervened, and my law-school girlfriends and I seemed to have equally calamitous ventures in the kitchen.  At least my misadventures never reached the same level as those of my good friend Mary, whose neighbors called the fire department when they saw smoke billowing out of the kitchen window.  Apparently, this misadventure also resulted in a very unhappy landlord when an expensive oriental carpet had to be replaced.  At least we could all laugh about it.  Since we were young lawyers our livelihoods didn’t depend on our biscuit making expertise.  But still, something was missing.  I had a deep sense of my own inadequacy in the Southern Belle department. 

It wasn’t until I began to venture on my own, standing on my own two culinary feet and therefore beginning to be a bit more daring in the “alteration of recipe” department, that I actually learned how to make good biscuits.  I’ve decided to share my biscuit recipes in the hope that some other young Belles will benefit from my years of mistakes.

For starters, I learned that a tiny bit of judicious modification of my basic biscuit recipe was in order.  My mother had always taught me to use two cups of flour and one cup of “other stuff.”  The “other stuff” consisted of ¾ cup milk and ¼ cup “grease”.  Grease is another word for rendered pork fat.  It really does make the best biscuits, but we all know it’s so unhealthy that we don’t ever use it anymore.  Instead, we use some other kind of fat, like Crisco or margarine or oil (depending on the recipe).   Anyway, my mother showed me how to measure 3/4 cup flour, and then add hunks of shortening by the spoonful until the measuring cup was exactly at the top.  But, I learned a little trick over the years.  Biscuits, in fact, do better if one uses ¾ cup milk plus about 1/3 cup shortening.  Then, after the batter is mixed, if the biscuits are too wet still a bit more flour can be added. 

My mother once told me that Mama Good’s cook told her a little secret shared by all good cooks:  they close their eyes when they add the fat and the sugar.  In other words, you don’t wanna know how much there is, but it turns out to be a bit more than we want to admit on the record!  So, that little "cook’s secret" was part of the reason my biscuits were never quite right!  The real amount of shortening is just a bit more than the official 1/4 cup!   

But there was another “eureka” moment for me, as well.  For that moment of inspiration, I must thank my friend Linda.  As a young newlywed, I often shared enjoyed dinners with other young newlyweds in my circle of friends.  One of David’s college buddies, Dale, married Linda.  They lived a couple of hours away, so our visits usually involved one or two meals together over the course of a day’s or weekend’s visit.  One day, Linda arrived to find me making biscuits.  The signs were already clear that my biscuits were headed for disaster.  Linda walked into the kitchen and I poured my heart out to her.  One look at my dough, and she immediately assessed the problem:  "You aren’t kneading the dough enough!"  She kindly took charge, literally “fixing” my biscuits and salvaging them from sure disaster.  I had been so concerned with not “working” the dough, she told me, that the batter wasn’t getting mixed properly. Linda assured me that kneading would not damage my biscuits.   And, gauging from Linda’s background and drawl from the heartland of South Carolina, her credentials in the Southern Belle department were very secure.  She proceeded to make her point by kneading the dough for longer and more times than I thought humanly possible.  Based on my mother’s exhortations, I was sure these biscuits would be stiff and hard as rocks, but Linda was right!  They were great!  There I had it.  Official permission from a true Southern Belle to knead the dough, and demonstration of how to do it.  She kneaded, rolled, and patted the dough, cut the biscuits, and the result was near perfection.   Here is the recipe:

Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits

Ingredients
 
2 Cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup shortening of some type (Crisco, margarine, or butter)
¾ cup milk (or any liquid you prefer)
 
[I will add a note here on the ingredients:  these biscuits can easily be made vegan, and they turn out equally delicious.  To make them vegan, simply use Crisco for shortening and soy milk for the liquid.   The soy milk actually seems to make them more tender!] 
 
Instructions: 
 
Preheat oven to about 400 degrees F.  Mix dry ingredients in a two quart measuring bowl. (Self Rising Flour can be used, of course, in place of baking powder and salt.)  Sifting is not necessary, unless you are using flour that still has chafe mixed in or is lumpy.  (Let me give you a hint:  use good quality flour.  If your flour has lumps in it, it is old and it won’t make good biscuits!)
 
After the dry ingredients are mixed, add the shortening.  Use a knife or fork to cut the shortening into the flour.  To do this, you literally cut the shortening over and over, coating the pieces with flour each time until the pieces of shortening are very tiny and all coated with flour.  The point of “cutting” it in is to keep the flour light and fluffy, so don’t mash the flour when you cut in the shortening!  When it’s properly mixed, the flour will be saturated with the shortening, so that it will be slightly damp feeling between the fingers and will cling to itself a bit like damp sand does.  Next, add the milk or other liquid and stir to mix the batter. 
 
The next step is the kneading.  I prefer to use a large cutting board or plastic mat, to make cleanup easier.  Take a handful of flour and sprinkle it in an area about 7” in diameter, about the size of a dessert plate.  Next, put a bit of oil on your hands.  This will keep the biscuit dough from sticking to your hands.  Then, turn the biscuit dough out on top of the flour.  Sprinkle a bit of flour on top of the dough, then mash it down.   After the dough has been mashed down, bring it up from the sides and fold it over on itself.  Only add as much flour as the dough soaks up by itself.  This is not the time truly to “add” flour; that has already been done.  At this point, only supply flour that is needed to keep the dough from sticking to everything.  Keep folding the dough over onto itself until it begins to feel like a unified lump and is smooth on the outside.  Use your hands to shape it into a shape that can be rolled out easily.  Then, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough.  I am attaching pictures, below. 
 
Don’t roll the dough too thin.  One-half inch is not too thick.  If you do get it too thin, simply fold it over on itself.  Folding the dough over on itself is a trick even used by some restaurants to make the biscuits very easy to slice down the middle.  When I personally want to make biscuits that are very easy to slice, in fact I deliberately roll the biscuit dough too thin, cut out all the biscuits, and then stack them two by two on the cookie sheet to make a rather tall biscuit that will come apart at the center very easily. 
 
But ordinarily, simply use a biscuit or cookie cutter to cut the biscuits into round shapes.  Or, if you prefer, you can use a knife to cut them into rectangular shapes (but this is not the classic shape of course).   Then, transfer the cut biscuits to an ungreased cookie sheet.  I prefer for the biscuits not to touch each other when they are laid out to bake, but they will not spread like cookies, so it is permissible for them to touch if the pan is small. 
 
Take the leftover dough, re-knead it, and either roll it out one more time to make another set of biscuits, or use it to make a sticky.  If you have a small child as a little helper, this dough is a nice gift to give them and let them make a shaped biscuit all of their own creation. 
 
Pop the biscuits in the oven and cook for 12 minutes or so.  Watch to make sure they don’t burn! 
 
A note on how long to cook biscuits.  Some cooks will cook biscuits at a lower temperature and take longer time.  Other cooks cook in a hotter oven for a shorter length of time. For example, biscuits cooked at 375 F will take about 20 minutes to cook, whereas biscuits cooked at 425 F will take about 8 minutes.  The slower they bake, the longer they are in the oven, which means the more they will dry out while cooking.  The hotter the oven, the more quickly they will cook on the outside but risk leaving the inside raw.  Given my “cookie” experience of habitually making biscuits that are too dried out and crisp, my personal preference is the compromise in the 400 degree oven.  But watch them, experiment, and adjust your cooking time and temperature according to what works in your oven.  And on the subject of ovens, be aware that not all ovens are created equal.  Some ovens have hot spots.  Hot spots can really affect the quality of cooking, leaving one end burnt while the other end is raw.   In one oven I once had, the hot spot was so bad that I had to rotate the biscuits halfway during cooking time.  Be aware and watch to see if this might be true in your oven, too!  But also, remember that when you open the oven door, the heat goes "whoosh" and flies away!  Resist the temptation to open the door on any baked good before it is done, for this un-does all the convection magic that is occurring in the chemistry of the dough-rising. 
 
Anyway, I call these biscuits “Ordinary, White Flour Biscuits” exactly because they are ordinary, in contrast to some recipes I hope to add to my Blog in the future – whole wheat, yeast, and buttermilk variations.  Learning to make “ordinary, white flour biscuits” is like learning how to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.  Once you perfect the technique for these, you can stop with these, which are very nice biscuits, or you can move on to more sophisticated variations on the tune. 

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January 13th

Happy Birthday Say Bay! 

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Long Underwear

At the present moment, it is about 65 degrees F (18 C) outside, overcast, and all the local people are wearing long underwear.  This means they are wearing three layers:  long underwear, clothing, and then a jacket over top.  Many people are also wearing hats, scarves, and boots.  This is in sharp contrast to the way I normally dress in 65 degree weather!

One could view this practice with a bit of puzzlement, but the reason why becomes more apparent when one realizes that local people, in general, have no heat.  When it gets down to 40 F (4 C) at night, it feels almost as cold to those sleeping inside the house as it does for those sleeping under the bridge overpass. 

This difference between how I dress in my heated house and how someone else dresses who doesn’t have heat brings to mind a similar contrast I once experienced while living in the United States. 

I lived in a college dormitory, but my college was only about 35 miles (56 km) from my family’s farm.  Several times each semester I would go home on Friday afternoon and return to school on Sunday afternoon, in time to prepare for class the next day.  But one weekend in January when I arrived home, it seemed my family was overwhelmed with work. 

My family raised various kinds of birds, and they were hatching about 10,000 eggs per week.  The tiny little birds could drown in ordinary watering containers (which were too large), and so smaller containers had to be used while they were very little.  Additionally, the little birds were vulnerable to infection, so the water jars had to be disinfected every day and washed three times per day.  Washing water jars for 10,000 baby birds three times per day is a lot of work!  To help my family, I volunteered to stay over and help wash and disinfect the water jars early on Monday morning, before I returned to college and my Monday morning class.  

The air temperature inside the barns where the birds was hovered at about 45 or 50 degrees.  The baby birds themselves were under giant heater lights (brooders) that allowed them to keep as warm as they liked.  (The air inside the brooders, directly under the lights, was about 110 degrees F.  If a chick felt cold, it could move closer to the heat to get warm, or if it felt hot it could move away to a cooler place.)  The water jars were spaced about every 2 feet, interspersed with trays of food, so that a little chick would not have to look very far to find what it needed in life.  But to wash the jars, we had to collect them and carry them outside to a separate, wet, washing area.  The outside air hovered just above freezing, and the water used to wash the jars was not heated. 

I dressed warmly and appropriately for this chore, layering with long underwear, shirt, sweater, gloves, hat, and jacket, two pair of socks, heavy boots, and muffler.  The outside air felt clean and crisp.  I found my gloves to be more trouble than they were worth, because of the manual dexterity required to open the water jar lids, wash, disinfect, and refill the jars.  Heat gradually drained out of my body, so that gradually I became uncomfortably cold.  By the time I was finished, I was happy to stop at my grandmother’s house for a short chat with her in front of a fire, holding a hot drink which she put in my hands.  I then quickly changed out of my "farm clothes" and into my "city clothes" for the transition back to college life.  Arriving a bit late, I sprinted to class with my books in hand just in the nick of time. 

It wasn’t until I was sitting in class that I realized, suddenly, that I was "burning up."  The classroom was heated, and I had forgotten to remove my long underwear when I changed my clothes.  Dressed as warmly as I was, the heat in the building made me extremely uncomfortable. 

I had not noticed this at all while at my grandmother’s house.  Catering to a family that was working outdoors and dressed according to the cold weather, my grandmother kept her house’s heat set between 45 and 55 degrees F (about 8 – 12 C).  Any hotter than that, and people dressed for weather outside would have felt unbearably hot when they came inside.  Moreover, it’s not healthy to switch from extreme cold to extreme heat like that, forcing the body to go from a "retain heat" mode to a "get rid of heat" mode.  In fact, I later realized, all the buildings in that town were heated to a level that reflected the fact that everyone in the town dressed in their long underwear. 

In contrast, my college classrooms and dormitory, in the next town over so to speak, were heated about ten degrees warmer, reflecting the more sedentary, indoor lifestyle of the students who spent their days in a library or classroom.  As I lived and worked in that town for a few years after my graduation from college, I also came to realize that none of the people in that town wore long underwear, and all the buildings were heated to a level to make them comfortable without long underwear. 

After that experience, I began to notice that the temperature buildings are heated to reflect a general cultural consensus.  In one city, public buildings will be heated to about 55 degrees (or not heated at all, like Guangzhou), and everyone wears long underwear when it’s cold.  (As a matter of fact, windows in Guangzhou will often be open on the coldest of days, to let in the fresh air.)  In another city, buildings will be heated to 65 degrees (18 C), or more, and everyone will complain about being cold — because they’re not wearing their long underwear. 

The rationale for this difference in heat is obvious when one is thinking in broad "north-south" geographic terms like, say, Florida and Michigan.  It’s less easy to explain when one thinks in terms towns that are only a few miles from each other, like my home town and my college town.  In my own mind, I decided it reflected the difference between a more rural, outdoor lifestyle and a more urban, indoor lifestyle.  Have you noticed or thought about this?  Do you agree or disagree?  What temperature is it right now where you are, inside and out, and are you wearing long underwear on this day in the middle of January?  Just curious! 

In the end, the people wearing long underwear are the ones who are doing the right thing.  We all ought to be wearing long underwear and heating a lot less.  The difference between the availability of heat in China and heat used in the USA is the difference between an energy guzzling nation and one that isn’t yet.  For a long time, the USA has been using a lot more than its share of limited energy resources.  China, as an emerging world power, is increasing its energy consumption dramatically each year.  But the earth cannot afford another USA.  In the mantra of "reduce, reuse, and recycle," there’s a reason the word "reduce" is listed first.  This isn’t just about saving pennies on a power bill; it’s about stewardship of the earth and its resources.  

I feel a bit guilty.  As I write this, I sit in a house that has heat.  But, in fact, we do try to conserve it.  I find that this winter we all are dressing in layers and using blankets for warmth when we lounge around.  Considering the remarks that Sophie made to me about the cost of baking a potato in an oven, I’ve even reconsidered that luxury!  Everyone, everywhere, needs to be doing everything they can to conserve resources. 

Unfortunately, sadly, the ordinary Chinese person doesn’t see it that way.  Heat means warmth and comfort.  Gas and a car means freedom and independence.  And status.  Just the other day, SY told me that Americans are fat because they have money and can afford food; she says that Chinese are thin because they don’t have enough money to buy as much food as they want.  The overindulgence engaged in by Americans is viewed with longing and envy by hungry eyes. 

I believe we Americans need to a lot do less preaching about other countries’ policies, less griping about cold people’s energy usage.  Instead, we need to do a lot more of leading by example.  We need to demonstrate commitment to responsible use of resources:  long underwear, public transportation, food policy that supports small, independent family farms.   (Hmm, and then there’s the minor issue of Kyoto Protocol and what ever happened to Jimmy Carter’s energy tax credits?)  There’s my soapbox, and I’m sticking to it! 

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Mayonnaise Drop Biscuits

When I learned our family would be moving to China, I took it upon myself to prepare for the move by reading many books about China.  I knew there would be culture shock.  Even though I didn’t understand what that meant, I wanted to prepare as best I could.  Books by all the experts talked about how different Chinese culture is from American culture, suggesting various strategies for business executives to cope with these differences.  Then, when I arrived in China, I learned something very interesting about myself.  For the first time, I realized how very different I was from other Americans!  Because, the fact is, I’m a Southerner. 

I’m from the REAL SOUTH, otherwise known as the "DEEP SOUTH" (not just the South that has now been overrun by people who will tolerate the heat only until the air cond runs out).  The Deep South could truly be a different nation from the rest of the United States.  In fact, we lost a war trying to make it so.  As I have learned through experience, Chinese culture is remarkably similar to American Southern culture.  In fact, the two cultures are almost identical in their most important two characteristics.  In both cultures we worship our ancestors, and in both cultures we never say what we really think.  There are two additional aspects of Chinese culture we Southerners implicitly understand: Guanxi (connections) and Mianzi (saving and giving "face").  Although these cultural traits were invented in China (everything was invented in China, if you didn’t already know), in the Deep South we have perfected them.

Living in Southern China, I find I have even more reason to feel right at home, as Southern and Northern culture seem to have the same defining differences wherever one is located.  Just as in the American South, Southerners here take afternoon siestas and understand the value of staying out of the sun.  They wake early and work in the "cool of the morning," rest during the "heat of the afternoon," and resume work again after the worst of the blazing sun has passed.  Southerners here speak with a dialect that is alien to and poorly understood by Northerners, and they recognize their kinship by their dialect.  Northerners talk faster, act rudely, and place more emphasis on dress.  They also overran the South!  At one time, this was the Nan Yue Kingdom, or the Southern Kingdom.  Have you noticed how far north the Capital of China is located, geographically?  Do you think if things had been more evenly balanced, the capital would have been located more centrally?  No wonder that what we call "Mandarin" is really the dialect of the North.  The dialect of the South is what we call Cantonese, even though Mandarin is taught as the standard dialect in school.  You know how it goes, the victors get to write the history!  

Well, along with intimate knowledge of how to harbor cultural grudges, I feel right at home in a city that defines its culture by food, as well.  Northerners like to say that Guangzhou has no culture.  In fact, Cantonese culture is a living culture where food plays a very large role.  Guangzhou has more restaurants per capita than any other Chinese city, and people spend a greater percentage of their income on food than in other cities.  For instance, it it is commonly said that Shanghai people spend all their income on clothing and skimp on food, whereas Guangzhou people spend all their income on food and skimp on clothing; in other words, Shanghai people eat to live, and Guangzhou people live to eat.  Is this an insult, or a compliment?  I guess it’s a matter of a point of view.  For example, if you know Dim Sum, you will know that Canton — Guangzhou — is king.  (Some people claim that Hong Kong is the capital of Dim Sum, but where do you think they get it?)  Noodles and dumplings here reach a stage of culinary perfection.  The food in the markets is so fresh and good here, it’s a cook’s paradise! 

 

But there’s one thing the Chinese can’t do with their dough, because they don’t have ovens (for the most part).  There is, truly, one Southern thing that you surely can’t get in China, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.  Good, old Southern Biscuits.  Some Europeans I’ve met here in China have even had the nerve to bestow the name "biscuit" upon something that resembles a cracker. Sacrilege!  A good biscuit is so light and fluffy you feel like you are biting into a cloud.  And once you bite it, it tastes so good you feel you have been transported to heaven.  Actually, most Southern cooks have several different biscuit recipes in their repertoire, as I do.  Some recipes are, in fact, a bit crisper or more flavorful than others, especially those of the whole wheat variety.  I collect and analyze biscuit recipes with the same gusto that rich gamblers use to collect their prize race horses. 

I will include only my easiest biscuit recipe in this Blog entry.  This recipe has several major advantages:  It is simple and small enough that it’s easy to justify cooking it even for one person, cleanup is easy, the biscuits are light and fluffy, and it’s impossible to mess it up (unless you burn them)!  It was given to me by my grandmother, Mary Emma, while I was living in my first apartment, on my own for the first time.  As she told me about her secret recipe, she giggled with a kind of joy reserved for sharing happy family secrets, as if she had been waiting for twenty years to finally disclose the family secret to me, that we were related to royalty.  "You’ll never believe how simple and easy this is."  Painless biscuits for beginners!  She said they were called   

Mayonnaise Drop Biscuits

Ingredients:
 
1 cup SELF RISING FLOUR,
1 tablespoon MAYONNAISE (it won’t hurt the dough if you use just a bit extra), and
"ENOUGH MILK TO MAKE IT DOUGH" (which translates as being about 1/3 CUP MILK)
 
 
Instructions: 
 
First, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  While oven heats, measure flour into a four-cup container.  Add one tablespoon of mayonnaise.  Use a fork to mix the mayonnaise into the flour until it is thoroughly mixed.  This makes the flour feel a tiny bit wet and oily if you rub it between your fingers. 
 
Next, add 1/3 cup milk and then use a spoon to stir the batter until it sticks together in a clump and is the consistency of a wet cookie dough.  At this point, the batter will be very, very sticky.  But there is no need to roll it out or handle it with your hands, which is part of the simplicity of this particular recipe!  Simply use a tablespoon to scoop up a spoon size glob of batter.  Then, use a second tablespoon to scrape that dollop of batter onto an ungreased cookie sheet.  Repeat this until all the batter is used up. 
 
(This recipe will only make four to six biscuits.  If you want more, double or triple the recipe accordingly, but smallness of the recipe is an added benefit if, say, you need to cook them in a toaster oven or if you only want a few!) 
 
Then, pop the cookie sheet into the oven and cook for about ten minutes. 
 
These biscuits are quite crumbly!  But they rise very nicely and have a nice flavor, too.  Use a spatula to scrape them off the cookie sheet.  Cleanup is easy, too, since you have only dirtied one measuring cup, two spoons, and one small mixing bowl. 
 
Don’t wait for these biscuits to turn golden brown!  They won’t!  They stay white until they burn.  Because they’re dropped biscuits and not rolled biscuits, they also will be irregular shapes and will resemble little Himalayan Mountains unless you mash them down and shape them just a bit with your finger.  (Either way is fine.)  Just be sure to take them out of the oven when the ten minutes are up.  They will be hot and delicious.  Serve immediately, with butter and jam if you like. 
 
In China, we cannot get self rising flour very easily.  If you can’t find self rising flour, you can make your own.  For each cup of flour, simply add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3 teaspoons baking powder.  After my initial supply of baking powder (carried from the USA) ran out, I spent a long time trying to find baking powder.  My housekeeper finally found some for me, but I can’t read Chinese, so when it ran out I spent another two months looking for it.  I recently spent about two months walking into Chinese grocery stores and explaining to them that I am looking for the white powder that you add to flour to make cakes rise.  Well, Eureka!  I just found out how to say the word for "baking powder" in Chinese — It’s "KAO FEN."  Literally translated — word for word I mean — this translates as (get this):  "Baking Powder."  Now, tell me, why didn’t I think of that? 

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New Years Resolutions: Finding Transcendence Within the Ordinary

6 January 2007
I
n his acceptance speech
for the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner shared what he felt was the "secret" of his writing:  He said he wrote about Universal Truths:  "the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice."  He continued, "The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
 
Indeed, some of the greatest American novels have been written about ordinary people living their ordinary, daily lives.  What makes these novels great is their use of the ordinary to illuminate extraordinary aspects of life or thought.  Great writers use their skill to illuminate universal truths which may not leap out at us every day, but which nevertheless are contained in our everyday experience, if only the light is shone on them in a certain way.  Tom Wolfe wrote about his ordinary experience as a young man in a family in Asheville; Will Faulkner wrote about ordinary people living their lives in fictional Yauknapataupha County, Mississippi; Charles Frazier writes about a very ordinary war deserter who is just trying to make his way home; One of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ neighbors found her depiction in Cross Creek so insulting — in other words so close to ordinary life — that she sued the author for libel.  Sue Monk Kidd writes about coastal South Carolina with a voice that makes one feel he is experiencing the salt marsh.  Beauty in the ordinary.  
 
Before I came to China, I had listened to this admonition that the extraordinary can be found in the ordinary, but I couldn’t relate that to my own experience.  I didn’t see how the ordinary — my ordinary life in a small town — could possibly be interesting.  What could be different or unusual enough to justify writing about?  Have you ever felt the same?  Have you ever asked, "what could possibly interesting or different about my life?"  The bottom line is, I urge, that every life is ordinary, and yet every life is extraordinary.  Yours, too!  Everyone, everywhere, has hopes, fears, thoughts and dreams, people they love, things they enjoy doing, things they feel passionate about.   I am no exception, and neither are you.  In this sense, we are both completely ordinary.  But ordinary is also extraordinary.  In the qualitative sense — in the value of life itself, in the opportunity for richness of experience, in depth of imagination — every life can be extraordinary if we dare.  Your life is, indeed, extraordinary! 
 
The only thing that sets apart my China experience is something I attempt to share liberally in this blog in a way that others can benefit as well:  the fact that when one "ordinary" (the American experience) rubs up against another, very different, "ordinary" (the China experience), the extraordinary nature of each is illuminated.  The contrast of my life in China, juxtaposed against my "other," very different, life in another country, highlights the unique and unusual nature of things I otherwise might have taken for granted, had I lived all my days in one country.  
 
The experience of living far away from my home culture has made me appreciate, even more than ever, the spectacular beauty of a flaming Carolina sunset (see my photo album "Beautiful Carolinas, this Blog), the bitter saltiness of country ham, the comfortable softness of a friend’s welcoming sofa, the soulful beauty of a Moses Hogan song, the texture and smell of richly composted, black mulch crumbling through my fingers, the pungent aroma of fresh lemon basil from my garden, even the raw sound of James Brown!  Since living away from my home environment, I’ve realized only more fully the extraordinarily rich nature of these ordinary experiences.   Similiarly, some aspects of things people think are quite ordinary here in China — the oily and pungent flavor of "white sauce chicken," the aroma of sandalwood in a temple, even the pitch and cadence of spoken Mandarin — are extraordinary and remarkable when experienced from outside the mainstream cultural context.  I’ve read that when Marco Polo wrote about ordinary Chinese life, his descriptions were so extraordinary that people didn’t really believe him!  It turns out that "ordinary" is only a matter of perspective.
 
In the factual sense, of living in unusual times or circumstances, some are luckier than others.  Or unluckier.  Winston Churchill was a privileged kid with access to education, but in another sense he was just an ordinary student who grew up in ordinary times.  He was dyslexic and, thus, a poor student in school.  As Churchill’s school records (on display at Chatsworth, his birthplace) chronicle, his teachers never thought he would amount to much, and he feared the same.  But he proved them wrong.  When the extraordinary circumstances of the mid 20th century thrust him into an opportunity rise to the occasion, rise he did.  He said of his times:  "These are not dark days; these are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race."  
 
The genius that Churchill had was to see a transcending view of reality and then to impart that view, a spiritual sustenance, to those willing to seek and take hold of that vision.  For only a year earlier, Churchill had said in his famous speech, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. . . . We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’ "
 
I believe each of us has opportunities to rise to the occasion.  To see where or how, to find the answer to the question, "What Occasion," perhaps we need look no further than our noses.  In the ordinary, there is the opportunity for extraordinary.  In each day, we have the opportunity to see the world afresh, to experience life anew, to gain a purpose in life.     
 
In his autobiographical chronicle of his final days and illness "The Gift of Peace," Joseph Bernardin (a South Carolina native) wrote about his struggle with cancer and pain, painful events in his life, and the letters he exchanged with his good friend, Henri Nouwen.  Bernardin was feeling discouraged by increasing physical weakness caused by cancer, pain, and questions about "why." He shared these doubts with Nouwen.  Nouwen encouraged Bernardin to write of his experiences, to show a path of light for those facing terminal illness themselves.  And so Bernardin did, finding purpose and transcendence even in this most grounding of experiences.  In the epilogue, it is written that Bernardin finished his book only hours before he died.  In a similar example of a life committed to finding meaning in the ordinary, Nouwen writes in his book "The Prodigal Son" of his own decision to give up a life of intellectual opportunity to live in a community for mentally retarded adults and of the rich rewards he finds in that life. 
 
In conclusion of this missive, I’d first like to invite each person reading this, as we greet the new year, to think about the challenges and opportunities which circumstances in life may lay on the table.  Take a moment to assess what may be transcendent in its ordinariness.  What opportunities, dangers, or experiences to savor lurk under the veil of the mundane?  I remember once, when I had two little children both in diapers, too many bills to pay, too many dishes to wash, a plugged toilet drain, and my idea of a good time was to fill a back yard kiddie pool with water and sit in it with the babies, the plumber (there to fix the toilet) told me I would remember those times as  some of the happiest years of my life.  "Yeah, right," I hissed in my mind.  But looking back on it, he was right:  the abundant beauty of those moments I DIDN"T MISS with those beautiful children is now crystal clear.  Sitting in that baby pool, dyeing Easter eggs on the backyard table, or swimming in that muddy Sesquicentennial Lake, are among my most precious memories.  . . . . So, this year, find beauty in your OWN ordinary.  And strive to make that which is "ordinary," better in the sense of acknowledging its richness. 
 
Second, I’d like to invite you to sample one of my favorite Blogs.  While Nouwen and Bernardin were already intellectual giants when they wrote their books, sought by publishers because they were already well known, I’d like to recommend for your reading writings by a young lady whose descriptions of her ordinary life — thoughtfully lived and vividly described — beautifully transcend the strict subject matter of harvesting leeks or burning French toast.  A Blog that, for me, captures the richness of "simplicity," in all its beauty, subtlety, and complexity.  A journal that is fresh, observant, open to possibilities, and perhaps even prayerful in the active sense captured in Nouwen’s book "With Open Hands."  Written by someone who is not yet famous but whose life has quiet, positive impact on scores of others. 
 
I’d like to recommend my cousin’s site, linked at:  http://girlnamedgo.net/river/.  I hope you enjoy her diary as much as I do!  (Thanks for sharing, SEB!  I look forward to seeing what realms of possibility the future holds for you!)  
 
 
 
Referenced works:
 
 
 
Churchill’s Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat speech:  http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=391 
 
 
 

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Puppy Housetraining

My experience with house training Isabella reminds me of a story someone once told about the experience of training a pet monkey to use the potty.  Every time the monkey would have an "accident," the owner would say "No! no!," pick it up and make it sit on the potty.  Then he would praise the monkey and give it a treat.  The long and short of it was, the monkey learned to run and sit on the potty without fail — every time — after it had already done its business. 
 
Well, we are having a similar experience.  I’ve been training Isabella to use a cat litter box, very successfully I might add!  Every time we take her out of her kennel, the very first thing we do is take her to her litter box and praise her and give her a treat when she uses it.  Lately, she has been using it all the time, getting lots of praise and occasional treats.  Except yesterday I noticed she "used" her litter box about three times a row, in quick succession.  And after each visit, she would run to me and beg for a treat. 
 
I figured out she has me trained, to give her a treat every time she goes in the litter box. 

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It’s Not Just China

I decided to share one of my most recent foibles.  It’s not all about China.  Challenges to daily navigation abound whenever one is living outside one’s home culture, period.  When you can’t take things for granted, you just can’t take them for granted!  Which sounds stupid, but every decision is a decision, every day brings lots of confusing choices and lots of decisions, sometimes made without adequate information.  You roll with the punches and do your best, live with the consequences large or small.  Here’s my most recent example:   

Our family decided we would create our own, new, tradition for New Year’s Dinner:  Sesame Seared Tuna.  Sesame Seared Tuna is actually a recipe I copied from Ocean Avenue, a restaurant in Santa Monica, California, where D and I once had a memorable dinner.  It has become not only a family favorite, but also THE traditional birthday dinner for one of our children who happens now not only to be vegan, but who also now lives about 12,000 miles away from us, but whose birthday is in January! 

And so, we have to create a new excuse to serve Sesame Seared Tuna, in January.  What better exuse than for New Year’s Day?  So Dad braved the crowds on New Year’s Day to go to Jusco at Tee Mall and get tuna steaks. 

Jusco is a Japanese chain and has really good quality, fresh fish.  This is where I got the tuna for last year’s birthday celebration.  This week, they had fantastic sashimi grade salmon, but no tuna steaks.  Strike one.  On New Year’s Day, we celebrated with salmon sashimi.  (As an aside, Dad reported that there were easily 100,000 people at Tee Mall.  There’s a three day holiday for the calendar New Year, and everyone was out in the beautiful weather.)

Plan B:the store Metro has a huge meat selection, including flash frozen meat and seafood.  They’ll have it, and I’ll go buy it.  The family consensus was that January 2 would be the new target date for our New Year’s Dinner of Sesame Seared Tuna. 

On January 2nd, I arrive at Metro, but the tuna has not.  They, too, have great looking sashimi grade salmon steaks.  When I ask if they have any frozen tuna steaks, they take me and show me some small, frozen fish that are whole and each about 12 inches long.  Thanks, but no thanks.  My mind flashes through the Chinese words I used, searching for a communication error: ""tuna, fish, steak," I know I clearly said, "steak."  It’s not a communication issue:  the clerk was trying to be helpful, but that’s all she had to show me. 

Plan C?  The family has been hungering for ham, as well.  Pork is abundant where we live, but not a ham cured to western tastes.  I can count fewer times than the fingers on one hand the times we’ve had ham in the almost-three years we’ve lived in China.  And I can find ham at Metro.  I know, because I’ve seen other westerners buying them.  I use my cell phone to take a quick poll.  The answer?  "You choose."  So, I do:  baked salmon tonight, ham tomorrow night.  I pick up the salmon and go to pick out the ham. 

The hams, it turns out, are incredibly expensive.  Over 100 RMB per kilo, and the smallest one is about 3 kilos.  The math is roughly 300 RMB, divided by 7.5 exchange rate, divided by close to 2 pounds per kilo.  About $35 U.S. for a six pound ham.  And it’s a bit confusing.  The labels are all in Italian for the various kinds of hams, because they’re all Italian hams.  It’s "Greek" to me.  I pick one ham that’s only 95 RMB per kilo and is smaller than the rest, just 1.6 kilos.  It looks like a small, rolled ham.  The name didn’t ring a bell.  Although, if I had been thinking in terms of a menu in an Italian restaurant I might have recalled it and know what it was, or if I had seen it sliced . . . .  because I’ve had it before, served in a restaurant the way it normally is served:  raw and cold as an antipasto. 

I learn all this in hindsight.  Last night we had the salmon, which was great, and I soaked some black beans to cook all day today to go with the ham.  I’m getting ready to start cooking the ham this afternoon, so I look up on the internet "how to cook" this ham.  When I see the picture, I immediately recognize what I have purchased:  pancetta arrotolata.  It’s right there on the label, dummy!  You don’t cook it at all!  Some knowlege of Italian (and Italian food) might come in handy before one attempts to purchase Italian hams!  (So, just where ARE my Italian friends when I need them to give me advice about these things, and you know who you are!)  The following web site describing pancetta arrotolata says, "If well cured it’s quite delicate, with the fattier areas resembling cured lard in flavor and texture." 

So, it looks like we have a LOT of a really great (rich) appetizer for supper tonight.  Good thing that it will still go great with our broccoli with mock hollandaise, black beans over rice, sweet potato casserole, and whole wheat rolls.   As Beth says, my troubles truly are nothing.  As my American doctor said the other day, each trouble is small like an ant bite, it only bothers us more here because there are so many ant bites every day!  I can relate.  Sometimes I feel like a need a whole bottle of benadryl! 

Oh, want a picture?  Here is a web link to how this "ham"  is served:  http://italianfood.about.com/od/antipasti/ss/aa092906_4.htm  

As I write this and think about supper, it’s really beginning to sound (and look) quite delicious!  And, why not?  Why would I, after all, assume that other westerners (Italians for example?) cook their meat the same way I do?  I can be open minded.  It doesn’t make them sick, so it shouldn’t make me sick, either.  CJ just came downstairs, I told her about it, and she is ready to "go for it!"   Know thyself:  Before thinking about an expat lifestyle, ask yourself, could you enjoy raw pork fat for your New Year’s dinner?

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Fantastic Peanut Butter Cookies

Grandma Beth’s Peanut Butter Cookies, which she calls
 
 BELIEVE IT OR NOT COOKIES

2 cups of peanut butter
2   cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Mix ingredients until well blended.  Drop by teaspoonfuls on baking sheet. Press cookie with fork.  Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes.

 
I add the following comments: 
I roll the mixture into round balls, 1 inch in diameter, put on cookie sheet leaving plenty of room to spare for each one, then use a big fork to flatten it, making a cross hatch shape on each one.  Bits of peanut sprinkled on top are a nice add on.  I also bake for about 4 minutes longer than this recipe suggests, don’t know which oven is out of calibration.  These are really sweet!  So far, I have been able to cut sugar by 25% with no bad effects.

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