Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Beijing Stories

Last night, I dreamed of shelling peanuts. When I shifted, I realized I was half awake, a visceral tug  on my stomach. Hunger. Images of roasted peanuts danced before my eyes, golden, crunchy and fragrant from roasting. Years ago, I had crunched them between my teeth with the satisfaction of a pampered child, thrilled by the riches it offered.

Peanut is not a chic nut around here in ritzy southern California. Most ladies I know prefer designer nuts like pecans or health nuts like almonds and wouldn't be caught dead eating plain old peanuts. But I devour peanut butter by heaping spoonfuls, searching for a familiar taste from the past. Something is missing and I don't know where to find it, in packages of whole or peeled, buttery or crushed. The longing, unfulfilled, doesn't turn me off from peanuts. Just the opposite, it eggs me on to the search. Relentless.


The ones I had as a child gave a subtle sweet release at the end of nutty kicks. It was a rare food in Beijing, like bananas and sometimes, apples, this being the days of poor transportation and growing things by hand or whatever else God provided. Roasted in the iron stove, some spots on the shells turned brown to caramel colors, warm to the touch. Occasionally we got them from street vendors, who advertised their fares in bursts of singsong phrases: "Pea---nu---ts! comeoncomeoncomeon eat hot fresh pea---nu---ts here!"  Auctioneers might well envy their quick turns of the tongue and opera singers their rhythm and pitch over simple phrases. These vendors dotted the streets of Beijing, each a performer in his or her own right. The ice-cream pop granny, the one eyed popcorn man San, and the ones pushing ice glazed cherry fruit stick carts. Along with the chess players lining the cobblestone sidewalks, the old men swinging their black cloth covered bird cages, the army of bicycle riders dressed in buttoned up Mao suits or flowing long skirts, their visceral tugs on me measured stronger yet inevitably returned to me to plain old peanuts.

Around new years, the lunar one, we sat around the dinner table and shelled peanuts, sometimes along with a poker or chess game. Other times, only the sound of radio programs or the flickering TV kept company with the crackling sound of peanut shells opening. The small one room dwelling felt cozy with all four of us huddled inside, a hot coal stove dangerously close but wonderfully warm when the dark chamber glowed red. Dad put together the chimney during the fall, sheets of tin wrapped into ever narrowing cones, nailed at the edge to keep shapes.  He attached the cones into a long L-shape, going up from the stove then out to the round hole at the top of a bank of windows on our southern wall. We dipped newspaper strips into flour pastes and wrapped it around all the joints to seal them. We do the same along window panes. The excellent seal around the house made it harder for us to ventilate against carbon monoxide poison that occasionally leaked from the stove, when the coal didn't burn properly.  Once I tumbled off the bed to find myself spinning, the whole family sound asleep.  How did dad wake from my fall I didn't know but he got us all outside in the blistering December wind just in time, before we gave in to the cozy sleep induced by the lethal gas for good. 

Whole peanuts resembled kidneys, with a narrow waist in the middle, curving out to fat rounds containing the fruit, tapering to a point at the ends.  My thumbs grew sore from the exertions of pressing until the shell cracked, my nails pulled back at the end of the night, red and raw from pressing hard onto the rough textures embedded in their nubby clothing. Mom blew onto my fingers when she tucked me into my cotton caves, her face glowing red like the stove, her eyes curved like two crescents, her hair fraying into the light cast above her head, bearing a touch of brown I never noticed before.

Our beds were made of pine wood frames and a platform with wooded boards. The space between the boards was no wider than a pinky so they might not have been intentional. Mom laid layers of cotton quilts over it - large sheet pockets stuffed with raw cotton. These quilts kept us warm. Their lumpy and leaden weight locked me into a prison of warmth. Like our tiny one room house, the tiny courtyard with shadowy path that scared me at night, and the tiny blocks on which it resides, surrounded by tiny shops and other tiny residences, they pressed on me as a child, a warm and dark prison of gridlocks.

Once or twice, dad brought home a live chicken and a bottle of two pot brews (a cheap but strong liquor popular at the time).   Squatted in the small opening of the courtyard, he slit the chicken's throat in one swift slash and held its head back so blood can flow neatly into a bowl he placed underneath.  Only after the blood had drained would he dip it into boiling hot water to loosen its feather for plucking.  After that, mom took over, steaming the bowl of blood for dad and gutting the chicken for a giant pot of soup.  They always started this at the onset of first frost, so the chicken would keep for about a month, sometimes longer.  Mom would add water to the soup and serve it until only bones remained and the soup tasted like dish water.

But we eat the meat fresh on the first night.  Mom always leaned back onto her chair when she wasn't buzzing around fetching this and that. She chopped green onions, garlic and ginger and soaked them in soy and aged vinegar. Dad pulled apart the hot chicken, his hands immune to boiling temperatures. "Old skins." He told me, as a matter of fact. "When your skin grows old, it will get tougher too." I only blinked, enough times to forget what I was pondering and to move on.

Before dishing out the parts, dad questioned us. How did we perform in school, what have we learned all year. My brother Lou's answer never satisfied him so mom often played mediator or distracted his long lectures over him with a quest for games.  Once, she asked someone to tell a story. I had just read a joke that a rich man invited his servant for dinner. The rich man asked the servant to divide the chicken according to the roles of each diner. He had meant to humiliate the servant with his false generosity and modesty.  The clever servant chanted:

  • The head for the head of the family and he served the chicken's head to the rich man,
  • The neck for the connecter and the controller of the family and he served the neck to the rich man's wife
  • The breast for the heart of the family and he served it to the rich man's beautiful but kind daughter
  • The legs for humble servants who works on his hands and feet all day

Thus he not only received the best part - legs and feet (a delicacy in China) for himself, but also humiliated the rich man and won the love of his daughter.

Dad laughed with good humor. Mom asked me how should we divide our chicken? Surely not like the snarky servant? I hesitated.

Dad took over and said:

  • I will take the head as the head of the family
  • My wife who sings will take the neck as it will enrich her throat
  • One leg for me and one leg for my son because as men we carry the family's foundation
  • The breast for my daughter as I want to protect her like my heart

In reality, however, dad ate whatever parts we didn't want. A picky eater since birth, I could only stomach chicken breasts.  But I soaked my rice into the golden colored soup and watched how each kernels of my rice glistened, plumb and white like tiny lichees, ready to burst between my teeth. Lou devoured his leg(s) and searched for more, until mom and I shared some of our breast meat.

 When dad opened up that bottle of two pots brew, mom would stir fry some shelled peanuts until they shone dark and red and golden against grainy white salt. Lou had perfected the skill of picking them up with chopsticks, one by one, until the plateful disappear before my eyes and dad's playful whack against his thick dark head within sight. Sometimes dad whacked less playfully, against Lou's perpetual hunger and penchant for making food disappear, no matter dad's directive on sharing and preserving for later. Lou's hunger baffled me. I had a fickle stomach, a quiet disposition as a child and perhaps thus a poor appetite so he was always alone in a quest for richer, more fulfilling food. I aided him only to avoid seeing him in trouble, and not nearly enough to make a difference.

The red skin on even fried peanuts tasted bitter, so Lou discarded them. I did not. The bitter taste brought out the sweetness in the buttery center, sharpening it against my tongue. Memories too, bitter against the sweet, sharpening their tugs on my soul.


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