It began with...pot stickers.
Our traditional Christmas Eve meal is Chinese food. This morning, we messaged Istanbul's Stranger, our daughter, for a chat, and she asked if we could hold off until their food arrived. She'd ordered Chinese takeout, promising our grandson, Ender, pot stickers.
Chinese takeout in Istanbul is a very big deal, believe me. As in: no pork in Turkey, e.g. But tradition is tradition, and if there was one Chinese restaurant in Sariyer, Istanbul, she was damn well going to make sure she had Chinese food--and pot stickers--for Christmas Eve dinner.
Tonight, the rest of her clan polished off what was the best Chinese meal since leaving San Francisco. The pot stickers, garlicky and gingery, actually tasted as though a person had really made them with rough and experienced hands. The scallion pancakes were to die for, light and oniony and dipped in a soy-ginger-Siracha sauce. So the rest of the meal went. This not being a restaurant review, I won't get into details unless you email me. But I will remember the tastes tomorrow morning.
Later, in our Colorado home, a discussion ensued among the stateside clan that in true life, cioppino, not Chinese food, was our family's traditional Christmas Eve meal.
Whatever else cioppino may be, it's also a classic San Francisco dish, kind of a shellfish stew in a rich broth. It's been bastardized to a degree, with the "broth" becoming little more than a tomato-based pasta sauce with a lot of fish dumped in. But a true cioppino is made in a clear shellfish stock broth with onion (or maybe shallots), celery, leeks, chopped tomato and (not always) fennel, white wine and seasoned with oregano, thyme, bay leaf and saffron. But I digress.
In Portland, things didn't improve. Chinese food proliferated, but good Chinese food was rarer than Gentiles at Miami retirement homes. Cioppino claimed our tradition.
By the way, we just figured out our time-honored traditions tonight. Cioppino or Chinese food? Why care, says the deafening roar? Well, part of it is because seafood is more problematic in Denver than in Pacific coastal cities. Another part is that we found the best Chinese food since leaving San Francisco.
And food isn't just, well, food. Chinese food, for us, recalls Yen Ching, now closed, in Reno, where we lived until 1986. The Byi family who owned the restaurant are a remarkable tale of people from a difficult place who came to this country and imagined themselves to be in a better place. We can't have, say, asparagus chicken without remembering that the Byi kids were in school with mine, that the family recipes came from a tradition of Mandarin, Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese traditions and secrets, that we maintained warm friendship we had with Paul and Marsha Byi. That my brother, Steve, always had to have the pork chow mein, that my father insisted on Mandarin spare ribs, that Yen Ching's pot stickers tasted something of heaven, that the Szechuan prawns, sizzling and sweet-sour-salty-spicy hot were a moment unto themselves.
In San Francisco, it wasn't so much Chinese food as it was what kind--Cantonese, Shanghai, Mandarin, whatever. Mike's Chinese Cuisine on Geary, no longer there, was our overall favorite, and was so tasteful I can still remember the sensory joy of several dishes, especially the peppersalt crab. But I think it was the cioppino that makes it's claim to Christmas memory for our San Francisco years.
My mother would move heaven and earth for good Dungeness crab (and a decent Chardonnay), and she usually got her wish at some point. For Christmas Eve dinner--cioppino--we trotted down to Friscia's, on Francisco off North Point in Fisherman's Wharf. Friscia's was--is--pretty much of a fish wholesaler, but my father, with his nose for a deal, learned they also did a small retail business., At the beginning of crab season, we'd haul off to Friscia's--Friscia Fresha Fisha--for crab just off the boat and newly cooked.
He made this discovery from some stranger on the 44 bus to Candlestick Park. Whatever else happens, cioppino or Chinese food recalls The Joe Montana-Dwight Clark "The Catch," or the Will Clark-Matt Williams era of the Giants.
I can wax nostalgic, but the point, here, is the cioppino. My mother taught my wife how to make it. I can see to this day my mother chopping the onion and celery, the stains on the stainless steel knife she used, the cracks on the wooden handle, her red knuckles holding the onion. She probably had a recipe at one time. But it took up much of the day, each step having to be done in a precise manner, and this is what my wife remembers.
Whatever else food is, it's memory and tradition as much as it is sensory experience. That said, the smell of cioppino still takes me back to that Broadway flat, with the bathrooms in weird places, rooms that didn't really fit together but were made to work, the sturdy kitchen with a view from a small dining area, the den where my father had his fatal stroke.
My sons recalled their own memories of cioppino on Christmas Eve at their grandparents, mostly confined to their grandfather's jokes and the nearness of some of their middle-school friends. My schizophrenic brother--their uncle--occupied one portion of the table speaking a mostly quiet monologue with no punctuation, unless you include the word "and" at the end of a sentence. Stephen, my mentally disabled brother, was remarkably agreeable and happy, and talked of being a good boy for Santa, even though he was two years old than I, my mother talking about my brothers and sisters and their children and their children's children so as to keep the family narrative, my father making fun of the neighbors in the flat ("That old fart of a Milton? Jesus, he thinks that turkey-necked babe of a nurse 'loves him?'")
Memories, good and bad, are the foundation of a life, and without them, a life is a house-of-cards existence, I think. And I know people in this situation. They are alone, so terribly alone, even when surrounded by a crowd, especially a sycophantic one.
So our evening ended in potstickers, six on a plate, each of them a trope of a lifetime of memories. Each of these will be passed along to a new generation, with any luck. No meal should be consumed in a vacuum.
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- Of Potstickers and Cioppino
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- ▼ December (11)