“Where’re you going?” Mom called sharply from the kitchen. “Aren’t you going to help me?”
I stopped, one foot on the stairs. My eyes were bleary, my temper suddenly short. I’d flown in that evening from Seattle after a full day of work and was headed to bed after yawning my way through the late night news, keeping Mom company. My kids were already tucked in the trundle bed in the spare room upstairs. I shut my eyes as I shook my head.
“I’m tired, Mom. Can’t we do this in the morning?”
“No,” she said quickly. I noticed that her lips were pinched just like mine. “We have to do this tonight. I’m doing this for you and your kids, you know. I have other things to do tomorrow.”
Of course you do. My head dropped as a dizzy fatigue engulfed me. If I could just lie down I’d be asleep in seconds. Being a single mom – no energy to waste – had made me pick my fights carefully. I breathed deeply – the equivalent of three huge sighs. I edged back into the kitchen.
“There’s the shrimp,” she said, no apology in her voice as she nodded at a plastic bag of raw prawns on the counter. Mom always called them shrimp, a sharp emphasis on the p. “Buy small ones; they get chopped up anyway.” She pulled the last batch of ground pork out of the Cuisinart with her bare hands and patted it into a giant steel bowl. She’d started grinding five pounds of pork butt as the eleven o’clock news started. “See here, this pork is the right texture.” She poked it with her fingers as I walked past her to the sink. “I don’t like the ground pork they sell at the store – too fine. This way, I make it just the way I want.”
Yes, everything is the way you want. I glanced over to note the texture. Me, I’d use that half hour for sleeping and just buy the damn ground pork at the store.
I peeled the prawns while she clattered the cleaver on the wooden cutting board, chopping up the other ingredients and adding them to the bowl. Although she’d recently found that raw prawns irritated her hands, she insisted on using them anyway. “They make the won ton sweet,” she claimed. “But only use shrimp if you eat it right away! If you have to freeze it, leave shrimp out.” As she added the chopped prawns, I dug my hands into the meat mixture, slowly squeezing the cool ingredients between my fingers. The meat smelled of soy and ginger. Along with shitake mushrooms, cilantro, and water chestnuts, Mom added another secret ingredient – carrots – “to give it color.” I doubted that people would notice flecks of grated carrot embedded in the won ton while eating soup, but she was adamant.
“What’s taking you so long? The water’s ready to boil.” Mom stood at the kitchen sink, apron strings tied loosely behind her back, her pink polyester pants neat and trim. I sat on a stool at the counter, the huge bowl of meat mixture in front of me. She clattered the stainless steel mixing bowls into the dishwasher. At half past midnight, she was waiting for me to wrap up the won ton so she could boil them up for tomorrow’s soup.
My thumbnail edge was gently teasing at the almost invisible crease, trying to peel apart the layers of won ton skins. Two fully defrosted packs sat as blocks on the kitchen counter. I pulled on a layer.
“Damn it, I ripped another one.”
“Lemme see.” She wiped her hands on her apron, came over to the counter. She sucked her tongue on the inside of her teeth. “Tsk, you’re not doing it right.” She pushed my hands away. Mom tried to slip her bright red fingernail between the layers, just as I had, with the same result. She looked over at the packaging.
“Oh, this is why, this is the wrong won ton pay,” she said, drawing out the syllable in a low tone, a Cantonese accent. “This brand is good for fried won ton because it’s thinner, it fries faster.” She picked up another package, a different brand, from the counter and handed it to me. “Here, this should be better. It’s a little thicker and won’t fall apart in the soup.”
I looked at the packages – both were covered in Chinese characters. If either said “good for soup,” – which I sincerely doubted – I’d never be able to tell. Mom just knew, just as surely as an Italian mother would know to use rotini with a heavy meat sauce and cappellini with a light marinara.
I lifted a square won ton skin from the new pile, pressed a half teaspoonful of meat mixture in the top corner. “More meat,” Mom insisted, looking over my shoulder. I plopped in another glob with my chopstick, folded the corner down twice, then placed a spot of meat on the left corner of the skin, twisted the right corner over to meet it, pressed the skin tight. It stuck firm. The trick was to use a spot of meat instead of water to glue the won ton into shape. I fanned out the rest of the skin and placed it on a cookie sheet. One after the other, I lined up the perfect little won ton boats, ready to boil. Won ton means “swallowing a cloud,” which is what the little boats look like in the soup bowl.
“Remember when Por-Por showed you how to make jow gok?” Mom stood in front of the giant stock pot, boiling won ton. She lifted the first batch from the boiling water with a flat mesh net. “Here, try one of these.” She pointed her utensil at the steaming won ton before adding, “Do you ever make jow gok at home?”
I thought back to my frenetic cooking lesson, my 4’9” grandmother bustling about the kitchen, muttering in Cantonese only to herself. From the sporadic bursts of phrases we’d exchanged over the years, I’d assumed she spoke virtually no English. Only when she passed her citizenship exam – after sixty years in the United States – I realized how wrong I was.
Her precisely curled gray hair was held captive in a hair net. She wore a plain cotton dress and an ecru hand-knitted cardigan she made herself, covered by an apron that ran from neck to knees. In one hand she held an empty coffee mug. She dipped the coffee mug into the flour canister, dumped varying amounts of flour onto the cutting board, then added a handful of rice flour before making a well and pouring in some water. I grabbed the coffee mug when she was done and tried to calibrate her measurements with standard measuring cups and spoons, but ended up just guessing. How big was that pile of rice flour in her palm? I asked Mom to help translate, but Por-Por wasted no time. She slowed just enough to show me the small potato she’d boiled up. She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose with the fleshy base of her thumb, pointed firmly at the potato. “One potato. Ho sic, one potato.” I nodded, understanding this bit of Chinese. Tastes good. The potato was a crucial ingredient. She turned to the chopping board and flattened the potato with the side of a cleaver, then immediately squeezed it into the flour mixture. There was no way to measure the size of that potato before it was forever lost in the doughy amalgam. After we filled each dough dumpling with a savory mixture of ground pork and dried shrimps – and she prettied the fluting on my dumplings when I wasn’t looking – she dropped them in sizzling oil and deep fried them. They were delicious.
I looked up from counting the rows of folded won ton, shook my head. “No, I just don’t have the time,” I said. Who had time to create these handmade delicacies with big responsibilities like work and children? My grandmother may have done it in her day, but I wasn’t willing to spend a day alone in the kitchen at the expense of spending time with my sons, who likely had a Little League baseball game or two over the weekend.
As I wrapped up the last won ton skin, there was still a pile of meat mixture in the bowl. “Still a lot left, just like hot dogs,” I mumbled. I never understood why stores didn’t sell hot dogs and hot dog buns in the same quantities. With eight hot dogs to a pack, and six buns to a pack, unless you planned for 24 you’d always end up with something extra. I gave Mom a giddy smile and stretched my arms above my head, heard the little pops as muscles snapped back onto place. The oven clock pegged two-fifteen in the morning.
“Just put it in a carton. I’ll finish up here.” Mom pulled another steaming batch of won ton out of the water, placed them gently in the colander. Inexplicably, her voice had turned to one of soft concern. “I’ll pack it up. You go get some rest. You must be tired. See you in the morning.”
Amber Wong’s recent work has been published in Full Grown People, Lunch Ticket (Summer/Fall 2017 featured essayist), Slippery Elm, and Metaphorical Fruit. Her short essay, “How I Learned to Write,” won the 2011 Writer’s Connection essay contest. As an Asian American woman engineer, she usually writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge of risks posed by hazardous waste sites. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.