Tuesday evening, in the juncture between afternoon and twilight. Return home from school. Mom is on the computer. Sister out for CCA (as usual), dad is away on a business trip. Waiting for catering to arrive with dinner. Picture this: a typical modern family, at a day’s close, each absorbed in their own worlds until dinner arrives. Then: a quick gathering at the table, the murmur of scarce words exchanged, soft tinkering of porcelain bowls and wooden chopsticks, picking at products in styrofoam takeout boxes and plastic containers. A consummation without passion.
It is almost impossible to visualise that: once upon a time, in this typical modern family, the act of eating food meant more than just the process of sustenance.
Another scene: I am five years old, and just starting to grasp at an understanding of the world. I have just gotten my Singapore passport, although it matters little to me, at this time. The abstract concepts of country, identity and roots mean nothing more than adult talk - all I want is to sit on the tall stool in the kitchen and watch my grandmother prepare dumplings. Watching flour rise like slivers of smoke as my grandmother separates the dumpling skins on the wooden chopping board (it’s to keep the skins from sticking together, she says) and her leathery, gnarled fingers working deftly at folding filling (meat, chives, occasionally shrooms) into dumpling, infinitely more elegant than my mother, with her long but unsure fingers which fumble and make mistakes, and mine - short like hers, but wholly unsuitable to handle delicate dumpling skins. It is as though this simple traditional craft diminishes with each generation.
“Nothing to look at,” my mother, sometimes, comes into the kitchen to scold me. “Go do your homework.” Her newly-learned English is still clumsy, but she makes a determined effort to get the family to speak only that foreign tongue at home. New country, new language, new thinking. In attaining assimilation into this new foreign land, the newly-modern family has to make sacrifices along the way. With the hubbub and hubris that comes with city life, the issue of food slowly steps aside for the wave of more important things to care about. Traditional recipes became just that- something of the past. Passing them on is even less of a concern.
In the unyielding current of time, the concept of soul food became obsolete. Soul food. Not just a type of cuisine, as it is normally defined. The idea that food should be made with the soul; in the modern family- modern society, how does this concept stand?
When is the last time I have had a soulful meal with my family?
Monday takeout. Tuesday catering. Wednesday fast food, Thursday eating out. Friday night, popcorn night. Saturday, leftovers. And Sunday restaurants, over insincere prayers. And Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and…
Perhaps it all ended when grandmother moved back to China, unused to city life in a wholly foreign land. Or maybe when ma stopped attempting to cook in her mother’s stead, and dad stopped complaining about eating takeout and store-bought. And maybe my family isn’t the only ones at fault. While the pressure of a million rice cookers bears upon the people, it’s hard enough to fend for yourself- who has enough life left, after the struggle to survive in the first place, to care about the intricate details to living?
Food - the window to one’s soul. But when one no longer has enough soul to bare, what comes then?
Swansong: Today I made dumplings from the vague memories of how grandma used to make them. They are ugly by most standards, drooping at the sides and falling apart at the seams, unable to stand upright. Thirty minutes in the pan yields a plate of gooey mess that is too salty and tasteless in equal turns. It is a terrible meal and I ate most of it, and only tasted bygone warmth and a distant happiness I had feared lost, and perhaps, maybe, if only-