(Julia Turshen [@turshen on Instagram] is offering food writing classes via Instagram Live with prompts and special guests M – F 2 PM EST while everyone’s at home due to COVID-19. These are my responses to her prompts.)
Prompt for Mon. 3/23: “Who is the oldest person you know? Give them a call and find out their favorite thing to eat when they were young”
“When you go your whole life being cooked for, it’s no surprise you have no favorite food!” my mom chided my dad, the oldest person I know at almost-70. He gave the anti-climactic “everything your grandmother made was great” answer which was surprising since he’s quite the picky diner insisting that each meal have a plate of rice, a sud-an or main dish, and a bowl of soup for it to be considered a meal. And so it was that my mom, five years his junior, volunteered a very particular dish she grew up eating.
“We’d snack on dilis, anchovies, as children. They were fried and dipped in soy sauce and vinegar with a side of rice and so as I ate, I would cut their tiny heads off after they’ve soaked in the dip and wrap them in tissue paper before going to school. During class, I’d sneak out the tiny little heads and snack on them!”
All of us imagined my petite and demure mother pulling out fish heads from a soggy tissue paper, vinegar perfuming her skirt and the classroom, and laughed. “Is that what you communists did back in the day?!” we joked, pointing out her upbringing in the Chinese communities and schools of Iloilo, Philippines and the stereotypes prevalent during the time. “You all sang the Chinese national anthem every morning after all!”.
Unfazed by her already bizarre answer, my mom pressed on: “Communist? Hell no. We were socialists. Big difference! The communists wore pigtails and longer skirts. They went to our rival school and when we saw them outside, oh we shouted across the street from them! Hua siong kaw kabugaw, cha sai pe bin tao. Eat shit with a side of bread, pomelos of Hua Siong!*”
It’s hard to imagine profanity out of your own parents, much less them picking at fish heads in the middle of class. Then again, food, like family, sometimes skews bizarre rather than romantic.
*it rhymes a lot better in Hokkien.