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Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir with Earthly Recipes

The author's Chinese grandmother Nai-nai brings a tantalizing array of sights, smells, and tastes when she comes to stay, taking control of the family's kitchen and opening up the heart and mind of her American granddaughter to her Chinese heritage—and to the world. Through Nai-nai's traditional cuisine, the author bridges the cultural divide in an America where she is a minority—as well as the growing gap between her patriarchal Chinese father and her progressive American-born biracial mother. Interspersed throughout her intimate and moving memoir are the author's recipes, most of them from Nai-nai's kitchen. A loving ode to family and food. An exquisite blend of memory and the senses. 





When we were little, my mother thought of a uniquely devious way of getting my sisters and me to eat our dinner. It was usual at that time (the 1950s) for mothers of small children who were dilatory at the table to employ the classic admonition, "Just think of the starving children in China." Or India. Or Africa.

       My mother told us a story instead.

       The story was based on an incident that occurred in the late 1940s, when my family was living in China and my sisters and I were too young to recall. My father, freshly graduated from the University of Chicago, had been summoned back to China by his father, Li Zongren, who had decided to run for the vice presidency of Nationalist China. He felt that his son's knowledge of communications and technology would benefit his campaign, headquartered in polyglot Shanghai. He also wanted to meet his American daughter-in-law, Genevieve—truncated to a more pronounceable Jenée for his benefit—and his two American granddaughters Marcy, three years old, and me, half that age. Two more granddaughters would follow in fairly rapid succession: Wendye, born in Shanghai, and Gerrie, in Hong Kong.

       My family set up house in Shanghai's French Concession, where one night, as they were returning home from a night out with friends, my mother noticed three beggars dressed in rags squatting by the roadside. They were poking at the contents of two tin cans—one in its original shape, the other flattened out into a serviceable pan—cooking on a small brazier. Inside the taller receptacle was freshly boiled rice with a blanket of cabbage leaves, wilted from the steam. In the ersatz frying pan, several stones sizzled in a dollop of oil. The men paid no attention to my mother, or to anyone or anything else for that matter. They filled their bowls with the rice and cabbage, placed a stone or two on top, and began, lustily, to eat.

       "They were so poor," my mother told us, her voice betraying both sympathy for the men and gentle reproof toward her daughters, "they had only a bowl of rice and a few cabbage leaves for dinner. Instead of meat they had to fry stones for something savory to eat. They sucked on that hot, oily stone, spat it out into their bowl, ate another mouthful of rice, then picked up the stone again with their chopsticks and sucked on it some more, until all the rice and cabbage were gone. Imagine! Sucking on stones!"

       Now, I was old enough to know what plain stones tasted like: bland, perhaps only slightly bitter, and no matter how well you rinsed them, gritty. And I was young enough that frying stones in oil—peanut, of course, with some shredded scallion, slivered gingerroot, and minced fresh garlic—was outside the range of my experience or abilities. My mother's rationale in telling us that story was to make us appreciate the bounty before us, to shame us into finishing the food that lingered on our plate. But my not being an adult and never having sucked on fried stones, the anecdote worked differently in my child's mind. I did indeed imagine it: a mound, a heap, an enormous quantity of rice and vegetables...and a single stone capable of flavoring it all. That story, recounted for an altogether different purpose in mind, had touched my imagination, which in turn stimulated my senses: my olfactory nerves, my salivary glands. Instead of feeling sorry for the three ravenous men, or scooping up the last few forkfuls of mashed potatoes or string beans or whatever was getting cold and congealing on my plate, I sucked hard on the virtual stone my mother had conjured and found it—just like the beggars must have found their actual ones—delicious.