Monday, February 1, 2010

The Chinese Men and the tahini dressing, for surely you will love one or the other

Can you see this tiny, spotted amphibian? He sat on the edge of our pond the other day for nearly half an hour, letting us both take pictures of him. In fact there were two of them, one closer to the fall of water, both poised as if they could not see us. They reminded me of those glazed figurines that come from China, and this (and Rodney) reminded me of a story I wanted to tell you.

My great-grandmother, Addie, had two daughters, Gladys and Helen. Addie is the one I told you about, the one who was suspected of never properly sharing a recipe for fear of also sharing its inherent perfection with the recipient, but she was as dear as diamonds to me when I was small. She was tiny, with bright white hair that seemed to stand out around her head like an imperfect halo, and blue eyes twice as bright. Her daughters had come, like her granddaughters (and, yes, I think even her great-granddaughters would), in one of two shapes: the boobs, butt and belly shape of Glad, and the delicate, Celtic old-ones look of Helen. When Glad and Helen were grown and married, one of them had, or was given, or collected on her own, a set of about 7 Chinese mud men, each distinct from the others, who looked more or less like these, but not the same.
Addie had a wonderful collection of things we might call knick-knacks today; she had one of those sets of shelves recessed into the wall of her living room, and there were things I now know to be milk glass pitchers, and depression glass vases and other beautiful things I wasn't allowed to touch, and I *think* I remember the Chinese men, but it was lo, these many years ago, my loves, and I could have imagined that. In any case, I do remember for certain that these figurines were about 5 or 6 inches tall, and that they were always called, in the family, The Chinese Men, and everyone knew exactly which "Chinese men" were meant. One had a pair of baskets across his shoulders, balanced carefully. One had a staff or walking stick, and the others had decorative touches of their own; I cannot recall whether one had a frog, but for some reason this still, silent living frog reminded me of The Chinese Men quite strongly. Who can tell the earliest fragments of childhood memories from the things we added later? Who can sift the absolute reality from the softened and probably inaccurate recollection? Not me, my dears. Not me.

The years passed by, and Glad moved to Virginia (far, far, in those long-ago days, from eastern Tennessee), and more years passed and Helen moved to Florida (imagine!), and Addie died. And all the while as the years passed and the sisters visited each other, something mysterious and never spoken aloud was happening to The Chinese Men. It seems that Glad may have hosted the whole assembly of them in her house not far from Richmond, and Helen, fey, elegant Helen, may have visited, and when she was gone some of The Chinese Men may have disappeared. And in the days before Winter Park was close to anything called DisneyWorld, but while Walt was digging and pouring and changing the aquifer, Glad may have gone to Florida. Imagine! A place where the very name seemed to be an irony, where palm trees actually grew in front yards, and where Helen worked at Ivey's mixing face powder for ladies as beautiful as she was, and even more so. Helen had worked at a department store in Kingsport, before she left the beautiful mountains, and perhaps because she was small and lovely and a fine advertisement for the products, she was put in charge of the cosmetics counter, where she was the first cosmetics sales lady in town to mix face powder for ladies of color. I don't think anyone was especially proud of this at the time, though I know she came to be proud of it later in her life. So Glad came to Florida, where the heat may have bothered her, and she stayed a bit with her sister. Close in age, they seemed to have remained close through their lives. When Glad left to take the train or to be driven by her husband back to her Virginia home, inexplicably, some of The Chinese Men had found their way back to a shelf in Helen's small apartment. But others were missing. Some would find themselves in Virginia. There were always the same number; there was always the same collection of The Chinese Men. But some were with Helen, and some were with Glad, and this equation seemed to change now and then.

This mystery continued in my family for some years, though no one said a word about it, and I do not myself know the whereabouts of The Chinese Men now. Helen died, leaving two desolate daughters behind, and years later, Glad died, too, leaving her own daughter. With them, as far as I know, was buried the mystery. It has been kept affectionately, if quietly, alive for me: one small dear Chinese man was given to me many years ago by my friend Laurel, who shared so many family tales with me, and another by my kind husband, who has never forgotten a word I've said to him. You must have tales of your own childhood Chinese Men, if you can bear to look at them; I cannot bear to look too long upon my own, I know. If you can tease the cheeriest pieces of the memories out, do look on them and think of them with happiness.

If you cannot, or don't want to be bothered with sentiment just now, here is something nice for you: The Cafe Alcazar's Tahini Dressing, courtesy of our dear Lorie. If you can make a lovely green salad and make the edges of your plate bright and beautiful with strawberries and melon and slices of starfruit and whatever else you can find, and add a scoop of Curried Chicken Salad, and put this dressing alongside for the green bits, you will have tasted a bit of Heaven, as it is revealed by the Cafe and by friendship. This is the big recipe size, but you can halve or perhaps quarter it for your own delicious purposes.

Into a mixer you blend a cup of tahini, a tablespoon of finely chopped garlic and a pinch of cayenne pepper. VERY SLOWLY, add 3 cups of blended oil (Lorie recommends a combination of olive and canola, but you can do as you like), and I think you're looking for the typical emulsification of a salad dressing. Then you add 1/4 cup of soy sauce and 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar. "That's it!" Lorie says, "it's easy!"

When I started writing Eat Here, I meant to only include recipes I could tell myself, ones I knew how to make so well that I wouldn't consult cookbooks. Mostly I've been able to be true to this, except for one quick read of Southern Sideboards which I promise was only to remind myself of the city in which its authoring Junior League is located. The exceptions so far have been from Lorie's kindness, in honor of the much-loved Cafe Alcazar. And I have been shyly thinking of asking Ms. Moon for her positively heavenly Angel Biscuit recipe (only don't tell her, will you, because I haven't quite worked up my nerve). And I do welcome your own recipes and thoughts on food, because it wouldn't be quite right not to, since I so often hope you will Eat Here.


  1. Here honey- don't ever be shy:

  2. Ms. Moon, Ms. Moon.
    How you DO lighten the gloom of these long gloomy old days. Thank you so much, my dear friend.


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