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Viva la differences and the ties that bind

Braised Lamb Shanks in Red Wine

Not a day goes by that I’m not grateful I have the opportunity to allow the blither blather circling in my head to find its was on to paper and publication. Sometimes threads in my own history and the collective experiences of China Alley noticed juxtaposed come to me. In either of those events or any other, I am always surprised and very appreciated when my written blither blather (also known as this column) brings comments, emails, and other missives to me.

A few months ago, I received an email that read in part: “My wife came across your recent article about your uncle, Richard Wing, and his time with General Marshall in China. It so happens that I just published a book about Marshall’s China mission in which your Uncle Richard makes a number of appearances.”

The writer, Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, is the executive editor of “Foreign Affairs.” He previously served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and his writing has appeared in numerous publications including “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” and “The New Yorker.”

I devoured “The China Mission” as soon as it arrived. Kurtz-Phelan has done a magnificent job in his research and writing, and it was fun to see Uncle Richard’s name listed in the index. I learned more about this period of history. I knew The China Mission (December 20, 1945 – January 1947) was a failed diplomatic attempt undertaken by United States Army General George C. Marshall to negotiate the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party of China into a unified government. The only other details I knew were from Uncle Richard’s accounts.

Uncle Richard, as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, became General George C. Marshall’s cook and orderly at Fort Myer, Virginia. In 1946 he accompanied Marshall on his mission to China. In one of his interviews, Uncle Richard spoke about a particular day in the Marshall home in Leesburg, Virginia. The telephone rang, and he answered the phone. President Truman was on the line asking to speak to the General.

“That evening, I prepared roast leg of lamb for General and Mrs. Marshall’s dinner. After the meal, General Marshall casually asked me if I had been to China. I responded that I went to school in Canton for almost two years during the time of the Japanese invasion. After that I returned home to Hanford where I was born. General Marshall asked me whether I still had relatives in Canton. I replied that most of my relatives were living in the village about 18 miles from Canton. My ancestral family had 21 acres of rice paddies and a large spreading residential estate over an acre in the village. General Marshall said, ‘You will be going to China with me in about a month from now. In the meanwhile, you will be briefed and trained by experts and specialists in security, protocol and food tasting. Afterword, you will be my personal aide and food taster in China.’

“I was indeed over whelmed by such an assignment. Imagine for a humble Chinese cook to be offered this wonderful privilege to be assigned to a great Five Star General for the China Mission.”

And so, I tumbled into one of those aha moments of contrasts I never articulated, that had simply been suspended in that back of my mind. Uncle Richard could and would tell us numerous stories in great detail regarding his time with General Marshall. These days I wish I had asked Dad, who was far more reticent and perhaps for very good reason, for at least two detailed stories about his time in the service.

During WWII, Dad served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and completed numerous missions in China. The OSS was a wartime intelligence agency of the United States, predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The OSS was formed as an agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines for all branches of the United States Armed Forces. On December 14, 2016, the organization was collectively honored with a Congressional Gold Medal. Dad rarely spoke of his time with the OSS. The few stories we heard lacked detail.

A few years ago, he asked what kind of tea I had served him. When I said it was an Assam, he responded, “Oh, I was there. Right before we had a training mission in Calcutta. Then it was on to Madagascar.” Why I didn’t ask him to tell me more, I’ll never know. Maybe because I grew up knowing he preferred not to talk about his missions or sensing there were, simply, things he could not share.

Recently my siblings have found documents and paperwork that give brief glimpses of his service. Although we aren’t getting the story from the man himself, I’m glad these hidden gems have popped up. Hopefully there’s more out there for us to discover.

One thing all of us knew for certain, Dad had a dislike for lamb dishes in general. He said it was because of all of the mutton he ate overseas. There were, however, two lamb dishes he enjoyed – the rack of lamb served at our family’s restaurant, The Imperial Dynasty, and my recipe for braised lamb shanks, which I am sharing with you this week, a piece of my history that speaks to both Uncle Richard and Dad in my mind with gratitude for each of them and for their differences.

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Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-owner of the L.T. Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at ariannewing@gmail.com

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