My grandpa has Alzheimer's. It's been seven years now. The last time I saw him was 2019. He still remembered me, but he couldn't talk anymore. He watched me, listened to me talk, although I'm not sure he knew what I was talking about. He was smiling the whole time so I knew, at least, that he was happy to see me.
He was to some degree my childhood hero. Funny. Many people's childhood heroes aren't some old guy, I imagine. But when I was in elementary school, even middle school, to me he was the one that's capable of anything, and that's mostly because he could cook so well and could make anything I wanted.
When I was in elementary school, I'd go to my grandparents' place for lunch because they lived close to the school. I knew he could cook, but the daily lunch at that time was a different level. There was always one, occasionally two, meat dishes and one veggie dish and a soup, because I loved soup. They never repeated throughout the week, unless it's curry potato which was my favorite.
I could make such a list of the menu, and every single one of them was exceptionally tasty, except for the lima beans.
He'd make braised pork, teriyaki chicken, sometimes fish, either steamed or teriyaki.
There would be nappa cabbage, stir-fried or in soup. Tomato and egg. Something with zucchini, something with cucumber; potatoes cooked in every way possible because I loved potatoes. Winter melons cooked with tiny shrimps and gosh were they good. Silk squash also cooked with tiny shrimps for some reason, and it was the only way I'd eat my silk squash.
The soups were always amazing. Even with the most ordinary ingredients like egg and green onion, he could still make the most perfect homemade soup. One tiny drop of sesame oil changed everything.
Every day I'd look forward to lunch. On the walk from school to their place, I'd be so excited for the surprise of the day. Unless, of course, when it's lima bean season. Grandma loved (LOVED) lima beans, so every day I'd see a huge bowl of steamed lima bean on the table. I hated it because it takes the one veggie dish slot and lima beans meant no napp or potatoes.
I'd try so hard to eat all the lima beans so that there's no leftover for the next day. But somehow miraculously, there would always be another huge bowl of lima beans. After about three days I realized: grandpa thought I ate so much of it because I liked it, so he made more! And also that grandma wanted it, but anyhow, after I figured it out I'd stay away from it, so grandpa would then made another veggie dish for me.
I have to mention the curry potatoes. It's just diced potatoes cooked with curry powder. But for weird reasons, my mom could never recreate the same flavor as my grandpa did. There was always something off about it. The closet I'd ever had to grandpa's curry potatoes was at a brut truck in front of a local brewery in Arizona who sold German style potato salad that was seasoned in curry flavor.
And grandpa's noodles and wontons--mmm there's no replacement for that. One would think it's simple: it's just noodles mixed with soy sauce and slightly fried green onion. How, and how on earth, could grandpa make such good noodles with the perfect sauce. It was a perfect ratio of soy, sugar, salt, and maybe vinegar. I don't know because I still haven't figured out his recipe.
My mom once told me that she thought grandpa's cooking secret was lard. It was natural, in some ways. Lard is a very common seasoning choice in food around the Yangze river region around Shanghai and Suzhou. The ideal lard must be snow-white, and in cooking one'd only need a tiny spoon of it to change the entire tone of the dish. I didn't know this because I never learned to cook when I was living in China. After I came to the US, somehow the cultural hierarchy led me to believe that lard was a inferior ingredient.
It's not. There's no inferior ingredient. I understand that now because I understand colonialism better. It's just food.
But I never got used to cooking with lard, let alone making it from scratch. Since I had been craving for a particular kind of noodles, I had to make my own lard. I got pork belly, chopped it up, first boiled a tiny bit of water then threw the pork belly in there. When the liquid is clear, turn down the heat and let sit for half an hour, stir during so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
So I stood in front of the stove, stirring the pork belly, and remembered grandpa. He must have spent a lot of time like this making lard. That's what made his cooking so different from my mom's because she didn't like making lard. But grandpa, oh no grandpa was serious about cooking. His noodles and wonton were so good because he'd use a small spoon of lard in it.
When I was little I didn't know what lard was. I thought it's like peanut oil or sunflower oil that would come in a bottle. Turns out it takes a lot of time.
It's so funny, and sad. I didn't realize how cool my grandpa was. I knew that he had two large bookshelves of books, all kinds of books. It was during the nap time after lunch--when I never napped--that I read all the so-called classics. I read the Romance of Three Kingdoms, the Water Margin, the Red Chambers, a bunch of Lu Xun and a bunch of Liang Shiqiu, stuff that were considered high-brow literature, especially for an elementary school kid.
But with all the interest in literature, grandpa was actually a chemist. I don't know what kind of work specifically, but he had a college degree in chemistry, which, in the 1960s China, was pretty rare and precious.
During my college years, there was one time when I was having dinner at my mom's friend's place. They grew up together and knew each other and the families pretty well. The friend showed me a picture of his father and my grandpa together--they had worked for the same oil company for many years.
Grandpa must have had been in his 20s, and damn was he handsome. He was like, well, some sort of hot guy face, considering the time and the lack of materials. The friend told me that when my grandpa was young, he was a famous guy because he's handsome, he knew literature and could write poems, he played basketball well, and he cooked well. He was the dream man, the friend said.
How funny, and how sad. I learned about these in 2013, the year that he started to show symptoms. I first thought it was just a part of aging. The clue was in his cooking.
He'd make all these things that I loved: braised pork, curry potato, teriyaki chicken wings. But the seasoning would be completely off. It became saltier and saltier. Eventually my mom noticed, because I would not eat the food that she brought from grandpa's place anymore.
I thought he'd just gotten older and his taste buds were dying. But turned out his taste buds were fine. He just didn't remember whether he had added salt or not, so he added more.
There I was, making lard and remembering all of this. Grandpa can't talk or walk anymore, and I don't know if he remembers me still. I don't know if he would ever know how the lunches at his place have made me who I am today.
I don't know if I'd ever see him again. I wish I could show him my cooking, have him taste it, and tell me how close I've got to his cooking.
That will never happen, and it shall be a pity forever.