Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Cook

One of the most vivid -- though brief -- characterizations in the novel Night of Many Dreams (also blogged here) was the cook, Foon, who worked for the Hong Kong family at the book's center. Her kitchen always smelled rich and mysterious. Despite rationing during the Japanese occupation in World War II, she managed to provide for them:
"Strange soups and vegetables appeared on the table, made from dry herbs and plants.... It was as if Foon were a magician, creating something out of nothing. And if she was lucky enough to bargain through the black market for a chicken, or a piece of meat, they ate well and never questioned her sources." (p. 25)
Never questioning Foon was a kind of habit of the family. The small pantry where she had a bunk bed to sleep on, and one above with a tiny pile of clothing, were off-limits, though the two daughters Emma and Joan once sneaked a look at her small possessions. When family members were sick or sad, she made nourishing soup or brought them herb tea. She put remarkable dishes on the table for every meal. However, they knew only rumors about her past life, when she had evidently been married to a farmer, perhaps as a second or third wife.

After the family took refuge in Macao, Foon agreed to teach Joan, the older sister to cook. Joan would recite the five great grains of Chinese cooking: "wheat, sesame, barley, beans and rice. Soon she was slicing and frying alongside Foon, learning the small secrets of how to keep crispy chicken moist, or just how long to fry glass shrimp with ginger and garlic." (p. 39)

The girls' social-climbing mother disapproved of Joan's learning to cook, and implicitly of closeness with a servant. But no one seemed to question Foon's status as a member of the family, and she stayed with them throughout the 20 plus years covered by the book. When Emma returned to Hong Kong after 15 years in America, Foon was ready with all her favorite foods.

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