Nana’s “Chinese Roast Pork” Should Have Been Bad. But It Was Great.
I’ve written about my grandmother before. I loved her deeply, and not least because of the fountain of starchy, fatty treats she provided me daily. What a woman! She used to make a full breakfast of eggs, sausage, and home fries for me on schoolday mornings – and then put them in a used TV dinner tray so I could eat them in the car – thus giving me an extra 15 minutes of sleep. What an awful man she turned me into! But I adored her and revere her memory. Especially when I think of her Chinese Roast Pork.
My grandmother was from Revere Beach, Massachusetts, and Chinese food to her meant shrimp with lobster sauce, won tons, roast pork, moo goo gai pan, and other such Cantonese classics. Of these, two entered her permanent repetoire: won tons and roast pork. To this day, I’ve never tried to do her won ton recipe; it feels sort of sacrilegious. (Plus, it’s easier just to buy pelmeni.) But for New Years Day, my aunt and I attempted to resurrect her roast pork recipe. The result is pictured above.
The source was a small, yellowed, spiral-bound codex of recipes shared by her fellow employees at the Oriental Parlor Beauty Salon where she worked part time as a manicurist. Everything about the recipe is bad; it seems calculated to make the worst pork roast possible. It calls for a loin roast, which especially at the time was the leanest, lamest, least flavorful eight inches on the entire pig. The marinade includes both honey and sugar, along with varying amounts of sherry, soy sauce, salt, water, and garlic. (I say “varying” because Nana, like most great home cooks, never bothered to measure anything in her life, depending entirely on the kind of tacit knowledge that you acquire through years of doing something, rather than from reading it in a book. I will tell you frankly that this is how Rachael cooks as well.) After marinating the roast for an hour in a big baggy, it would be given a liberal coat of Red Dye #2, and then cooked three-quarters of the way through and then freeze it, thawing it for finishing ony when the guests were standing around eating Tam Tam crackers in the Florida Room.
I realize that this recipe sounds terrible, but somehow, the pork roast was one of the most delicious things that came out of Nana’s now-legendary kitchen, and I’ve often wondered why. Here’s what I have come up with. The “marinade” did nothing but flavor the outside of the roast; how could it, given the shape of the meat and the short time of the exposure. But I believe that the salt in it worked as a kind of dry brine, making the dry cut slightly juicier. The sweet stuff on the outside caramelized to the point of candying, and the sherry cut the sweetness just enough. The freezing caused the water in the pork cells to expand, breaking them down and making the roast more tender. She cooked the roast on low heat, and took it out before it dried out. Finally, the food dye made the whole think look special, and festive, and unnaturally attractive, like the radioactive spider that bites Peter Parker. How things look affect how they taste. And you know what else affects taste? How much you love the person who is cooking for you, and how much they love you.
Adele Weiner’s Chinese Roast Pork
loosely adapted from The Oriental Garden Beauty Salon Cookbook, circa 1974
1 3 lb loin pork roast
3 garlic cloves
2 tbsp sherry wine
2 tbsp soy sauce
½ cup water
2 tbsp honey
2 tspb salt
- Mix the marinade ingredients together well. Apply to the roast. Wrap it up in Saran wrap for one hour.
- Apply cherry-red food coloring to the entire roast, not missing any spots.
- Cook for thirty minutes in a 300-degree oven.
- Let stand. Wrap. Freeze.
- Remove and thaw before dinner. Finish cooking about 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven.
- Let sit, slice and serve.