Recently, Rodney Atkinson wrote to me about my column and mentioned a quote from the late professor, theologian and writer Henri J. M. Nouwen: “Our memory plays a central role in our sense of being. Our pains and joys, our feelings of grief and satisfaction, are not simply dependent on the events of our lives, but also, and even more so, on the way we remember these events. The events of our lives are probably less important than the form they take in the totality of our story.”
As my work and writing revolve and resolve around and through the lineage of my clan and the many elements of our local history and its memories, this quote deeply resonated with me. It also reminded me of one of my favorite books edited by Amanda Hesser, “Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from the New York Times.” When putting together this book, Hesser told the writers that she didn’t want memories of their favorite recipes but rather the telling of how a recipe affected them. Essays weren’t supposed to focus upon and illuminate Grandma’s famous molasses cookie recipe but rather the emotions certain foods evoked and how they were remembered.
Although it’s not a recipe and it isn’t a meal, one particular item charged with family history and symbolism of the importance of food to it chimes my heart and mind. The cover of the Chinese Pagoda and Imperial Dynasty restaurant menus can drop me down a rabbit hole into a plethora of memories. The cover is four panels of Chinese calligraphy A mere glance at the red and black menu covers brings back a treasure trove of recollections, tipping me over the lip of that rabbit hole.
Uncle Richard created the menu cover in 1958, the year the Imperial Dynasty opened its doors and the cover was used until the doors closed in 2006. At that time, the Chinese Pagoda menu was updated and enclosed in this cover as well. The calligraphy was also printed on the restaurants’ placemats and matchbooks. I never had the complete translations to the calligraphy, or why Uncle Richard chose them to represent the menus. I had only simple, two-line paraphrases from Dad and Uncle Richard. They said the panels basically said: “Good food, good wine, good life, and best wishes.” Over the years, when I thought about asking for a full translation and where they came from, it seemed that the times were always too busy. Then, when I realized there wasn’t enough time, it was too late.
Dear friend (although she is more like a sister to me) Sonia Ng is a Chinese American historian. On a recent visit I asked her to translate the menu cover and hoped she would be able to tell me a little bit more about them. She quickly responded, “No problem, it is easy.” Whew.
Each panel of the menu cover depicts a different style and era of calligraphy. Much could be written about each individual panel, and two of them exhibit very old styles of calligraphy, but here are the basics as explained to me by Sonia. The panel on the far right displays calligraphy from the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty of Imperial China, lasting from 221 to 206 BC. Continuing on to the left, the next panel has a Li style of calligraphy, from the Han Dynasty, which followed the Qin Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). To the left of this panel is one showing the Xing Chao style calligraphy, and the last panel on the left is the most modern style of calligraphy, Kai.
As Dad and Uncle Richard said, the gist of each panel is similar in phrases praising happiness, prosperity and everything good, as well as extending good wishes to others. For example, part of the second panel from the right says: “Every year we have a good harvest and an abundant crop. People live rich lives and the storage of our grains are always full, so the country is peaceful and safe.” A phrase from the far-left panel notes: “Ethical spirits enhance and benefit our lives.”
Writing this column, I frequently stopped and stared at the menu cover. From the Chinese Pagoda to the Imperial Dynasty, from my childhood to well into adulthood, there are countless visceral and emotional memories. Perhaps at this present moment there are too many. It is too much. My mind and heart are awash with reminiscences. Finishing the column I look away from the menu cover and pulled myself from the rabbit hole of memories, bringing myself into the present. I looked up at the clock on the wall. Yes, I am old school. When I want to know what time it is, I look at the clock, not my phone. I glance below the clock and note the calendar hanging below it.
I see that next week will be the Winter Solstice, the one day of the shortest in the year. Throughout the ancient times of China, this day played an important part as an influential festival, as a proverb says, “Winter Solstice is as important as Chinese New Year.” Dumplings are the most essential and popular food for the Winter Solstice. Coincidently, I was recently asked for a recipe for vegetarian pot stickers, as my previously published pot sticker recipe was made with pork and shrimp. To honor this request, and in preparation for the Winter Solstice, this week I’m sharing a recipe for vegetarian pot stickers, a variation on the recipe for steamed vegetable dumplings I have written about previously. I don’t think one can ever have enough dumpling recipes. Noodles, rice, and dumplings. Staples in my kitchen, staples in my memories.