Let the feast commence

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Po-Po’s dinners are events that I’ve always looked forward to. Po-Po is Mandarin for grandma – and it’s what I call my mom’s mom. I don’t really know her by any other name, outside of Janet, which is what I named her back in the early 90s (when I was 6), after my then-idol, Janet Jackson. I named my grandpa “Michael” after Michael Jackson. Neither names stuck—not too surprising. 

Po-Po is 98 years old now and has been hosting her epic dinners for over 67 years. I’ve been lucky enough to attend them since birth. That’s 30 years of Chinese food feasts. These dinners date back to the late 1940s, when my grandparents fled China during the Cultural Revolution and ended up in Taiwan with the rest of the KMT.  Like many of their peers, they figured out a way to raise too many children with not enough money, all the while continuing to host elaborate dinner parties for colleagues and neighbors. 

When I was a kid, Po-Po stepped in as my primary caretaker. She was always shuffling around in the kitchen in her Chinatown slippers, sprinkling mysterious powders into her wok, kneading dough into perfectly formed mantous and baos, grinding meat for her homemade sausages, or making fresh soy milk. There was nothing she hadn’t mastered, and she happily flaunted her culinary acumen in front of me.  During dinner, there would be no less than six dishes beautifully arranged on the table. What’s most impressive is that half of what we ate came from her garden. Eating local and organic wasn’t a concept – it was a way of life. 

I’ve always felt deeply about food, especially Po-Po’s food. To this day, everything she makes comes with a story or a lesson. (“This is why we eat black sesame," she'd explain.) And my desire to shadow her in the kitchen frustrates her. (“Don’t waste your time on cooking, you should do better things with your life,” she'd remind me) To Po-Po, cooking isn’t glamorous. Toiling away in the kitchen is not a life she chose, but the only one she’s ever known.

This is why I’ve started this passion project which I’ve named Po-Po's, inspired by my grandma’s cooking. It’s my attempt to translate her remarkable stories through my own lens. Importantly, I want to prove to her that her cooking has done more than just nourish me; it has taught me to value my heritage. I love being Chinese, dude. 

I’ll get into what the details of this project in my next post. It’s still in its humble beginnings, and sometimes, it all feels daunting. But I think of my grandma, in her slippers, attacking 12 lbs. of pork with her cleaver and am reminded of why I need to do this. She made sacrifices so I’d have the opportunity to do whatever I want in life. And I want to tell her story through food. Here we go. 

Diane ChangComment