I recently had cause to write about Jews and Chinese food for Time. I dilated on the subjected in the broadest and most grandiose of terms, but I was thinking of somebody from a long time ago when I wrote it. I thought of my grandmother, Adele Weiner, the best cook and most loving nana any boy ever had, and a woman who, if nothing else, knew how to cook a wonton.
She was nervous and intense, given to short bursts of temper and giddy flights of laughter. Things I said would crack her up. She and I were the best of friends, and I spent a lot of time in her kitchen. She didn’t cook with any of the things the postmodern ballebust has been taught to value. She used Kitchen Bouquet and Accent and onion powder. She was a prodigious consumer of paprika. And the thing she liked to cook best was Chinese food.
This, of course, was chinese food as the 70s knew it, the take-out Chinese from Ling Nam, which came in folded white cardboard boxes with pagodas on them. The order was the same every time; there was never any question of picking something else off the menu. There was no menu, that I ever saw. There was only moo goo gai pan for my grandfather, and chow mein for her, and pork fried rice for me, and the usual assortment of ribs and egg rolls and shrimp toast that were the whole meal’s reason for being.
My grandmother took it upon herself to recreate these dishes at home, which was a very 70s thing to do. The difference between herself and her other friends, who all lived in old-person apartments with vinyl couch covers and inexplicable pieces of judaica on tables that were never used, was that Nana was a whirlwind in the kitchen. Nothing she had was for show. Except for the couch; that had vinyl on it. But in the kitchen her hands were constantly shimmering with grease, and her blue-and-white polka-dot double knit blouses all had stains on them. The kitchen was tiny, and opened onto a small Miami yard with a single key lime tree, that she never once to my knowledge ever used to make pie with. Pie wasn’t her thing. She liked Chinese food.
Nana’s wontons were miracles of delicacy, crisp and greaseless and yet simultaneously packed with the lush oomph of ground pork. There were part of a whole procession of dishes that came from that narrow kitchen, and we, her adored, fretted-over family, would sit around drinking tall glasses of Canada Dry ginger ale, and thinking about the big platter of wontons about to come out. They were just a foreshpeis, of course, an appetizer. The main course was a huge pork roast the color of lipstick, and scented with ginger and garlic that had been dry-marinated into the meat by some time spent in the freezer. I remember well the tiny vials of food dye she kept on the top shelf of her pantry, the single least edible item in the entire larder.
By the time she served the meal she would be shvitzing freely, and of course it was impossible to cajole her unto actually sittting down herself. Cooking was something that happened in its own place, for its own sake, an end in itself. If she wanted to sit and relax and eat, she would send her handsome, quiet, loving husband, Bernard “Sonny” Weiner, out to Ling Nam.
I know that Nana made a lot of things besides Chinese food. I even had a spiral-bound book of recipes she and the other ladies at the beauty parlor where she gave manicures part-time had put together. What I would give for it today. Not that any recipe could really capture her dynamic force, her fierce and fervid devotion, her way of wiping egg white on a wonton skin while making conversation with her bored and endlessly chatty grandson. But in any case, those recipes are lost, along with so many memories of her other dishes. All that I remember of that wonderful woman, who was my best friend and my best protector, who took such good care of me when I needed her most, is her wontons. And you wonder why I like Chinese food?