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Chicken and ricely yours

(article, Christina Eng)

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My mother cooked rice. All the time, it seems. She served fried rice for lunch, using leftover meats and vegetables. She made white rice for dinner. We had it with soup, stir-fried beef, and steamed whole fish. She cooked; we ate.

When my sisters, brothers, and I grew older, we spent Sundays with our father in his liquor store in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We helped him stock the shelves there and straighten the displays. We kept him company.

Away from our mother’s kitchen in Oakland, we got to try other foods. Our father let us eat hamburgers and French fries, for example, from Mama’s Fortuna across the street. He treated us to croissants from Bakers of Paris down the block. He let us supplement our meals with soda and ice cream, snacks we lifted from his shelves.

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="All you need is a bowl and a pair of chopsticks." credit="Photo courtesy Christina Eng"]

Until our mother objected. She was concerned, she said, about the nutritional value of the foods we purchased, the items we ate out of paper bags. She worried about the grease and fat and artificial flavors. Besides, she asked, could we really be full with the things we had? She, for one, would never be satisfied without some kind of rice.

Before long, she sent us out the door Sunday afternoons with a rice cooker. She would see to it that we ate properly while we worked, and simplified our preparations for a decent dinner.

She measured the rice and water at home. She stir-fried a mixture of chicken, Chinese sausages, and shiitake mushrooms, too; she put these into a separate bowl. When evening arrived, our father turned on the electric cooker. Ten or 15 minutes later, he added the chicken mixture to the rice and let the foods simmer together. Their flavors blended nicely.

We ate fresh. We ate warm. We ate well. We finished our meals with sips of 7-Up and scoops of vanilla ice cream. Our mother, bless her heart, made some concessions.

Years later, I think about our father’s old liquor store and the long afternoons we spent there.

I recall rows of gum and candy: packs of Dentyne, for example, and rolls of Life Savers. I see a chipped Formica counter, our father at the register making change, a cigar box with large bills and extra cash he kept hidden in a drawer. Bottles of Bacardi rum and Beefeater gin and cartons of cigarettes lined the shelves behind him.

I see a black rotary telephone stacked on top of the Yellow Pages, our mother calling from Oakland to make sure everything was all right. I remember another wall lined with bottles of red and white wines, labels such as Almaden, Inglenook, Charles Krug. and Wente Bros. I remember a homeless man with a dollar to spend reaching for a bottle of Night Train.

I recall dusty aisles with racks of comic books and magazines: Richie Rich and Howard the Duck, Teen Beat and Tiger Beat, Soap Opera Digest and Sports Illustrated. And I remember the walk-in refrigerator that separated the front of our father’s store from the back.

In an area behind the refrigerated case, my sisters and I did homework assignments. We stacked cardboard boxes into desks and chairs, and quizzed each other on state capitals. With wooden crates nailed high to the walls, my brothers and I played basketball. Our laughter echoed throughout the space.


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Most of all, however, I remember the chicken, Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms, and rice my siblings and I ate Sunday evenings. The way the juices from the meat and mushrooms soaked into the once-white rice. The way the aroma filled the air. The way customers asked our father what smelled so good behind the counter.

The way our mother insisted we eat healthy, offering us a taste of home away from home. The way our father cooked and served us dinner once a week. The way the foods in that pot were seasoned with our parents’ best intentions.

p(bio). Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California. A version of this essay previously appeared in the Oakland Tribune.

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