For a foodie, I had a spartan culinary upbringing.
Perhaps it began in utero, when my mother ate tomatoes by the bushel during her pregnancy, believing it’d lead to a smarter child.
Out I came, eight pounds of screaming joy, born to China’s new breed of post-Cultural Revolution, university-educated brethren. Becoming American was an unlikely reinvention for my father, whose family, up until a few years ago, lived in a two-room concrete building heated by a coal furnace. Chickens still roamed the dirt roads.
My family held onto every dollar, never forgetting how difficult they were to come by. While my father was a Ph.D. student, we rented the top floor of an old house in upstate New York, wearing jackets indoors to save money on heating and faithfully finishing the leftovers.
I didn’t feel so different from other kids back then.
In elementary school, I qualified for a free school lunch, and I ate the same food as everyone else. Later on, my mother would pack strange lunches—fried rice with oil leaking out of the takeout container—and I remember feeling ashamed as I saw how my classmates’ lunches were so sterilized and scentless, so perfectly contained and uniform.
My parents did their best, and for the most part, I was very happy with what I had to eat. I never went hungry, and I did like my mother’s unambitious but earnest Chinese home cooking. When we wanted to celebrate, we would predictably choose one of the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets nearby, no matter what the occasion. The $12.95 price tag seemed exorbitant at the time.
As I got older, the feeling of being different grew.
Looking at this 2011’s Miss New York USA’s top 7 unearths no new memories. The white-garbed winner, Amber Collins, took the lead. About one year ago, I entered and lost my first beauty pageant in that same hotel – and I’ve mentally walked through every moment of that weekend five times over.
What you don’t see from looking at the photos or watching Miss USA in the spring is how these women get there. How low rent state-level competitions are. How the contestants who never get anywhere look. It’s a bizarre and fascinating experience, one that I wouldn’t dissuade any woman from trying out herself.
I can only describe it as a brain-bending, empty calorie endorphin rush, like drinking a pink can of Tab in one enormous gulp. It’s watching the water turn brown as you wash off the pancake makeup. It’s the exhaustion as you perfectly turn out one false eyelash for the fifth time. The headiness of a post-workout glow, then staring yourself down in the gym mirror, hair wispy and skin sallow. Then you look around and realize that all your efforts are for naught – the girls who end up in the top ten rigged the genetic lottery in their favor.
A reader, Vivian, emailed me to ask for advice to incoming Harvard freshman, particularly in regards to writing. This is my response, with the caveat that it’s aimed towards a particular personality type. (i.e. if you’re hyper driven and prone to biting off more than you can chew.) A lot is applicable to college students in general.
My first year of college was divided into first semester (good) and second semester (bad). The first few months I spent living in The Crimson’s newsroom, banging out news stories at blistering speed. I would obsessively refresh my email to be first to respond to story pitches. I rose fast. I drank the (gently spiked) Kool Aid.
Along the way, I made a friend who seemed motivated by the wrong things, or at least, things that I didn’t want to motivate me. We had a falling out, and second semester, my social life took a serious nosedive. I panicked. I had no friends to block with, it was like being picked last for gym teams all over again. I won’t even get into details of what happened. It worked out, but not without a lot of rejection.
At the same time, I cooled down my Crimson involvement, struggled in my classes, and removed myself from campus as much as possible.
So what happened?
[For Joanne Yao who requested a post about what it’s like to work at Serious Eats on my call for blog entries]
Working at Serious Eats is, pardon my pun, serious business.
What are aren’t paid in wages we’re more than compensated for in amazing food – the creme de la creme of what New York can offer. I’ve sampled NYC’s top 7 falafel sandwiches, 11 bowls of the best Taiwanese shaved ice, and countless sandwiches.
Whenever editors travel, they tend to bring back regional specialties – chess pie from Kentucky, cheesy bread from Brazil, candied jalapenos from a food fair. They’re all fantastically nerdy about food and generous with their knowledge.
Ed Levine, Serious Eats Overlord, surveying the cupcake spread in his “Phat Beets” tee. Because of his diet, he (wisely) opted out of the tasting.
A typical day at work might begin with a bag of peanut brittle on the table, courtesy of the manager’s mother. Maybe an intern made a pizza; I munch on one slice, then another. Around lunch, the UPS guy comes with a delivery; or maybe it’s a PR person dropping off some lobster rolls – free rein on that. Finally, in the afternoon, an intern runs out and comes back with 2-3 sandwiches for our “Sandwich a Day” feature and I saw them up into bite size pieces. They disappear. If you’re still hungry, there are 8 bags of potato chips in the cabinet from a kettle-cooked chip tasting organized by intern Aaron Mattis awhile back. Maybe Adam Kuban left pizza in the fridge. And don’t forget the bag of frozen Sushi Poppers in the freezer, ready for defrosting. Although no one except me has touched those.
Then there are regular tastings: the best hot dog, best American cheese, etc. The photos in this entry from the Best Cupcake in New York tasting organized by super badass fellow intern Leah Douglas. Leading up to last Friday’s cupcake tasting was sampling treats from dozens of bakeries.
And as far as what I actually end up writing about is mostly due to whatever I dream up. The idea of eating a butt-ton of shaved ice was my own beany, beany idea. Carey, the NY editor, gave me a go-ahead on a Flushing food court roundup, so off I went on the LIRR toting my new DSLR.
(My new life insight: the difference between an eccentric Asian girl snapping food photos and a journalist? A proper camera.)
Ed and Melissa from Cupcakes Take the Cake shaking hands over the cupcakes. I call this photo “The Treaty of 2010 Cupcakes.”
More photos of our epic cupcake tasting after the jump.
But here I was, eating my cheesy biscuit thing. The Bisquick was at least 4 or 5 years old. Yeah, I know.
Cooking in my mother’s kitchen, with her pantry, presents a unique set of challenges. After leafing through two cookbooks, one from a mythical land called Middle America (The Pioneer Woman Cooks) and the other from Sex-and-the-City-ville (The Pleasure is All Mine), I was reminded that to prepare Western food in this kitchen would be an uphill battle.
Eating this random thing was almost an act of defiance. It would have been too easy to make a bitter melon stir fry, or to wilt a head of bok choy and stir fried an egg, steamed some white rice, called it a day.
We have no crushed tomatoes. (Our pastas never feature red sauce, and there’s not a box of elbow macaroni in sight.) We have no cheese. If we do, it is 1) moldy or 2) frozen, breaded mozzarella sticks that will never be eaten. We have no basil, but we do have star anise, Szechuan peppercorn, and dried chiles.