In this article, Friedman student Zhiyi Sun tells the story of her family history through food.
Growing up in China during World War II, my grandmother was a chubby toddler of an affluent family. She describes how her ma tried to slim her down but failed, my great grandmother couldn’t seem to withhold food from her only daughter, who was blessed with a big appetite. “There were always snacks and pastries in the cabinet, and I’d crawl up the counter looking for them,” says my grandmother. “Sometimes I got caught with a mouthful of spring rolls,” she chuckles as she told me. Looking into my grandmother’s bright and wrinkled face, I imagine the chubby little girl with ribbons-tied pigtail, smiling through the plum sauce on her cheek.
After kindergarten, my grandmother was sent to an all-girls’ boarding school. World War II began, and she slimmed down. At the beginning of the semester, the Canteen served tender tofu topped generously with pork sauce, but weeks later, the topping turned into thickened soy sauce; eventually, there was only salt sprinkled on bowls of bland tofu. Almost every day, the students ate tofu with stirred vegetables served on white rice in the Canteen. But once in a while, the girls would sneak out of the school and treat themselves in the restaurants, pack pastries and fruits back to school. “But my favorite snacks at the street-vendor were fried grasshoppers, and roasted quails on a stick.” Unlike most Chinese people then, she always seemed to have money in her pocket. In the 1940s, a group of American pilots, the Flying Tigers, joined the war in the city, not only bringing in the much-needed peace but also, Spam, a pink, jiggly chunk of meat in a can. “It tastes glorious!” she would proclaim. The Flying Tigers also brought in Coca-Cola, a fizzy, sugary liquid with an ugly color. My grandmother spit it out the first time she tried it. “How can they ruin perfect sugar by putting it in stuff like this?!”
Years later, my grandmother thrived in school and topped her class during graduation. She became one of the few girls in the medical school and eventually, one of the first female surgeons in the country. World War II had become history, and the political turmoil within the country ceased. The university Canteen served three vegetable dishes, one meat dish, all you can eat rice, for two meals a day, for free! Still, my grandmother retained her habit of eating out at the street vendors’ couple of times a week. She met my grandfather, a fellow classmate, also the youngest son in a family of daughters who never lifted a finger to work. “Unbelievable,” she rolls her eyes. “He even sent laundry to his sisters to wash for him in College!”
After having their first boy, my grandparents faced the greatest turmoil in Chinese history—the Cultural Revolution. Food all of sudden became a meager resource, and all the street-vendors were taken down, as they represent capitalism. “Even with money on hand, we couldn’t get enough food, your father looked like a mouse.” I sense a streak of anger in her calmness, “everything had to be purchased with ration cards.” A lot of times, monthly oil ration for the family could barely cover the bottom of a plate. “For weeks, all we had were rice topped with chili sauce,” she sighs. Almost all the families during that time began raising their own livestock. Like most of the families, my grandparents kept chickens and ducks, which are easier to maintain. “The eggs were for your uncle.” She continues with an as-a-matter-of-fact tone, “your father was so sick that we pretty much gave up on him.”
During Chinese New Year, great joy bursts like firecrackers in the air, a hen, saved only for this day, sizzling delightfully in a clay pot. Platefuls of steamy, sesame-paste filled buns; garlicky pork liver sliced and wrapped in palm leaves; fried carrot balls served with chili sauce—all together, made up for a heavenly feast. They even received a ration card to exchange for a sweet-rice cake. Unfortunately, these couple days of a year never fatten up her active, stick-thin boys.
Somehow, despite their lacking resources, both boys grew up tall and strong. For my grandmother, the supply of food nowadays is endless, there are more items available on the market than she can name. Nevertheless, my grandmother became more interested in healthy eating rather than the pastries hidden in the cabinet. Still, her favorite dishes remained to be fried grasshoppers and roasted quails on a stick, and of course, Spam. The stories, by the way, have been told by my grandmother over and over again on our dinner table.
Zhiyi Sun is a first-year graduate student in the Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change Program at The Friedman School. She has traveled far away from home to study nutrition and discovered that love, like a bowl of warm soup, covers multitudes of Richard Scarry.