A Brief History of Sweetness in America
Poet Tan Lin recalls growing up in Athens, Ohio, with his sister, the artist Maya Lin – with specially commissioned photography by Roe Ethridge
Poet Tan Lin recalls growing up in Athens, Ohio, with his sister, the artist Maya Lin – with specially commissioned photography by Roe Ethridge
The history of a family is the history of persistence, and the history of persistence is the history of stuff. My parents were both professors – my father of ceramics and my mother of Asian literature in translation – and, in our family’s case, persistence took the form, partly, of books. My parents came to the US from China in the late 1950s, when my father was hired to head up a graduate programme in ceramics at Ohio University in Athens. My mother spent her childhood in Shanghai, as well as in a coastal city called Amoy; my father in Beijing and Fuzhou. After my mother’s death in 2013, I travelled to her retirement home in Pennsylvania and packed up her things. Two libraries, my father’s and my mother’s, along with household stuff: the dining-room table we ate on every night, some 200 of my father’s ceramic pots, two wardrobe cartons containing my mother’s Chinese dresses, as well as the beginnings of my own first library – spanning childhood to college – were transported to a storage unit on Varick Street in downtown Manhattan.
In 2019, my sister, Maya, and I decided it was time to reckon with what was left. It was one of the last weekends in August. I had not visited the unit for six years, nor given much thought to my parents’ belongings. I entered the room. Sunlight streamed through a large, south-facing window. The past assumes multiple shapes. This one took the form of a room. Everything – many of the items that circumscribed my mother’s and father’s lives in China and America – was in a state of mild disarray. In a corner were 15 bankers boxes that Maya, my mother and I had packed in 1989, a few weeks after my father’s death. Now, I had come to make some accounting of one of the versions of a family’s life. I looked at the boxes and thought about my parents’ Chineseness.
In one of the first weekends of sorting, I found two books on family-style Chinese food in America. There were no other Chinese cookbooks in my mother’s library, and I think these were the sole printed sources of her Chinese culinary education. Regarding cuisine, it would be a mistake to think of our family as mostly American or purely Chinese, or as confined to a single era of dining history in Ohio: clearly, we were a bit of both. Eating 1,000-year-old eggs and turtle soup or pressed duck is more entertaining than eating a conventional chicken bought in a supermarket, so, at the dinner parties my parents hosted throughout the 1970s, many organized around a Mongolian hot pot, we ate exclusively Chinese food prepared by my father, who was a very good cook. Amongst ourselves, at home, however, we basically ate, in the early years, American food prepared by my mother and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which my father loved. In summer, we ate almost no Chinese food because my father preferred American barbeque.
In Shanghai, my mother’s family had a cook, as was common for families of some wealth, and so she was forced to learn to cook after she came to America. The culinary improvement corresponded with our growing up, which is to say that she learned to cook slowly while raising me and my sister. First, she learned how to make American food because Maya and I insisted that, in order to be American, we had to eat American; later on, she taught herself to prepare Chinese food because, in the end, we all preferred it. By the time I reached high school, we ate what we considered ‘authentic Chinese’ almost every night, cooked by my mother, who freely improvised in her kitchen, using American ingredients from Kroger or A&P. As my mother’s cooking advanced, my father would compliment her by saying: ‘It’s so Chinese it has to be American,’ although I may have gotten this phrase backwards. Her favourite dish, and certainly Maya’s, was spareribs marinated in La Choy soy sauce, Heinz tomato ketchup and cane sugar that re-created the sweet brown sauce common in Shanghai cuisine, but minus the crucial ingredient of five-spice sauce, which she made up for by dropping in American red food colouring. And so, in a sense, my father was right: everything American in our house was
coloured to look Chinese.
When I look through a little red box of my mother’s recipes in the storage unit, it contains only six Chinese recipes for dessert, beginning with ‘Agar Agar’ and ending with ‘Sah Chi Ma (Chow Mein Noodle Squares)’. My mother made none of these and I never ate them. Only one index card from the ‘Desserts’ section is soiled from use: ‘Almond Tofu with Lychees’. My mother called it ‘Almond Float’, which sounds like a Chinese version of a summer cocktail, and it is the only dessert I remember her making from scratch. Sweetness, like sugar and childhood, is relational, and it moves from place to place. This particular version was served exclusively at summer dinner parties, with canned mandarin oranges substituted for lychees, because it was impossible to buy lychees – fresh or canned – in Athens in the 1970s. Since my parents rarely entertained in the summer, because my father preferred American barbeque, almond float was a rarity. When my mother served it to guests, she always apologized – perhaps because it seemed too modest for a dessert and it was not sweet.
I sometimes think of the forms and route that sweetness took in our childhoods. It is often said that Chinese in America do not bake, and this was true in our family. In this regard, my mother’s recipe box retains a lesson in dissimilar things – between an abundance of recipes for American sweetness, compounded out of sugar and fat, and a paucity of Chinese ones. Sweetness is not only culinary; sweetness is part of growing up. Like my mother’s restrained affection for American food, the chronology suggests that my sister and I left behind our childhoods not for freedom or the pursuit of happiness but mainly for convenience and ease of translation. So, the little red box of her recipes is an introduction to sweetness and its deferral. The first card doubles as title page and dust jacket. It features a photograph of the cookbook authors, sisters Diana Wu Liu and Lily Wu Tang, in Chinese dresses holding chopsticks over four Chinese banquet-style dishes. Wu Tang holds a shrimp. The photograph is encased in a plastic sleeve to keep it clean while the box, like a lot of other Chinese things from our family, looks less like a cookbook than a scrapbook, an art object or even a personal letter. Sure enough, the back of the photograph reproduces a note, in cursive: ‘Wishing you many years of enjoyment in the exquisite Chinese food you prepare with your own hands and our recipes.’
The card is signed ‘By Co-authoresses’ and dated 1965, the year my mother took my sister and me with her to Seattle while she completed research for her dissertation, and my father stayed in Athens to supervise the remodelling of our house. Upon seeing the photograph, I recognize Diana, the much larger woman, instantly and the thinner woman, Lily, hardly at all. Diana and her husband had three children, two boys and one girl – one older, one about my age, one younger – and one of the boys was, like his mother, on the chubby side. Maya and I were both skinny children and remain skinny adults but, in the mid-1960s, I strongly believed the older boy’s girth was directly proportional to his mother’s superior cooking, and to the fact that there was no candy in our house.
Chinese cuisine is not sweet-heavy – at least, not in the form of sugar plus fat – and, with the exception of birthday cakes, dessert was rarely served at our house, and only a handful were ever made from scratch. Exactly four birthday cakes were served per year, all made using a Duncan Hines cake mix. I ate my first homemade apple pie in college, probably in a university dining hall, and my first strawberry rhubarb cobbler when a friend of my mother’s brought it to our house one summer, along with a recipe on an index card. With the exception of Halloween, sweets were scarce in our home and nobody seemed to want them. I never once saw my parents eat a boiled sweet, let alone something as large as a 3 Musketeers chocolate bar. Sweetness is a part of family life, but American sweets or confections, at least in our household, were not.
Sweetness deferred is not surprising, since neither my mother nor my father had what could be considered happy childhoods. My mother witnessed her mother’s suicide and, subsequently, became responsible for caring for her two younger brothers. My mother’s childhood ended at the age of 12, so she did everything she could to extend mine and my sister’s. She was an extravagant gift-giver at all times of the year, but especially at Christmas. Although she never learned to bake American desserts, she bought us Coca-Cola and endless amounts of Pepperidge Farm Cookies. As for my father, he never spoke of his childhood, and he never once mentioned his mother or father by name. At one point, my mother told me that my father had been sent away to live with an aunt in Fuzhou and that his childhood had not been happy.
And this brings me to an ending. What is a Chinese sweet? And what in life ends in sweetness? I’m not sure the idea of Chinese sweetness, for me, exists in any American sense. This may be because sweetness, in Chinese cuisine, is inherently ambiguous or ephemeral – like a spice. At any rate, there are exceptions in our family’s case. And so, an inventory, albeit a minor one, and an ending, are called for. Sweetness for my parents took the Chinese form: these are not confections constructed from sugar, nor are they cakes or cookies in the Western sense.
Affection: An Inventory
Chan Pui Mui
This was the only ‘sweet’ my parents ate: a preserved plum, salty and sweet, which looks like a shrunken prune. Each contains a pit and is individually wrapped: first in plastic, to keep it moist, and then in a blue and white paper wrapper. My mother told me it was fruit that had taken a ‘long bath’. In this case, the bath is liquorice, orange peel, sugar and a good dose of salt. I have since found bags of chan pui mui in shops in Chinatown and, now, Amazon and Walmart carry them. The label description is ambiguous, referring to it as both ‘fruit candy’ and ‘Chinese traditional fruit’, and I believe my mother and father regarded chan pui mui as a medicine and an aid to digestion rather than a sweet. I bought a bag in Chinatown that lists NineChef as the producer, adding that it is ‘Famous in Hong Kong’. Chan pui mui, which my mother pronounced ‘chum pee may’, isn’t so much sweet as a study of things related to sweetness. It became my sister’s favourite snack, too.
This small, brick-shaped Japanese sweet is glutinous and fruit-flavoured, possibly with mandarin, although it’s hard to tell since the taste sensation is mild to the point of non-existence. It is the most delicate, even minor, of sweets, appreciated indirectly, like a rose, by the nose. We ate this candy in one year only, 1968, when my mother and father were on a joint sabbatical in Orinda, California. It was as much a riddle of sweetness as it was a sweet. The packaging consisted of a large, orange-pink box containing six tomoe ame and a separate, smaller box housing a plastic toy. To my sister and me, this riddle turned on anticipation itself: a barely detectable rosewater fragrance in a box, a slow decompartmentalizing and unravelling of a sweet, and a toy souvenir. The sweets were twice wrapped in an edible rice paper that melted in your mouth and in a paper outer layer, and all this furnished an entertainment; we gave them to American schoolmates who refused to believe us when we told them the rice-paper wrapping would magically evaporate on the tongue. Tomoe ame is the only sweet that comes packaged like it’s Christmas morning – on Chinese New Year. Adding to the festive effect, the box is decorated with a New Year’s dragon and a baby shaking a rattle. My sister and I were allowed to purchase this item at Chinese New Year or other celebrations, when we would visit Chinese grocery stores in San Francisco and Oakland to buy live crabs for the holiday. We returned to Ohio after the year-long sabbatical and I never saw the sweets again – until 2016, when I was standing in the aisle of a Pearl River Mart in downtown Manhattan.
Kamberlain’s Swan Brand Lychee-Flavoured Jelly Sweet
Sweetness is meant to disappear; the more rapidly it goes, the more rapidly we seek its replacement. Kamberlain’s is a gelatinous sweet, which comes in a few different flavours – lychee, mango and, perhaps, persimmon. It may have been made in mainland China but it is most likely a Hong Kong confection. My mother wore Chinese dresses made in Hong Kong and, because she was uncomfortable in American department stores, and because there were no stores in Athens that sold Chinese dresses, she found a seamstress in Hong Kong who could sew her cheongsams. Except for the myriad fabrics used, they were all the same dress and, for this reason, it looked not as if my mother were wearing them but, rather, that the idea of Chineseness was wearing her. They were a uniform and a way of looking the way she thought she should look. So, for most of the 1960s and ’70s, my mother would periodically receive a brown paper packet from Hong Kong with dresses inside it and, in the packet, the seamstress would enclose a few lightweight items: boxes of jelly sweets, dried Chinese mushrooms, cans of bamboo shoots, bamboo skin, dried pork sung, tree ear fungus and cellophane mung bean noodles. Maya and I thought very differently to our mother about how she should look in a place like Athens, Ohio, in 1975, so we campaigned to get her to wear American clothes, but she never relented during our grade- and high-school years. Like many adolescent children, we were embarrassed by our mother’s clothes and ashamed of the difference they brazenly announced between us and our classmates.
Sometime after I graduated from college, and coincident with my sister and I leaving home, my mother stopped wearing Chinese dresses on a daily basis and bought her first pair of slacks from an L.L. Bean or Lands’ End catalogue. By then, my sister and I were too old to be relieved that our mother no longer dressed as if she had just arrived from China. And here, I suppose, inside a time still unfurling, some of my mother’s sweetness has come to rest, like an antidote to distance and to time. Maya and I wanted to change our mother’s clothes before we realized she would change them herself. My mother wore her cheongsams and, when she did, for most of my childhood, she was simply wearing what they made possible. Sweetness is hard to define or else it defies translation. What could Maya and I see of this, then, of a mother who was indisputably Chinese? So many years later, I found her dresses in the storage unit and took most of them home and hung them in a closet next to my suits and dress shirts, like that particular form of sweetness felt many years after its passing.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 210 with the headline ‘A Brief History of Sweetness in America’.
Roe Ethridge is an artist based in New York, USA. His solo show, ‘Old Fruit’, at Gagosian, New York, is on view until 18 April.
Main image: Botan Rice Candy, 2020. Photograph: Roe Ethridge, commissioned by frieze. Courtesy: the artist