Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Jook And The Moth"

It has taken me years to approximate it and twelve hours to put it together. I stir it one last time, and the aroma tells me that I am very close to my past. I turn off the stove and I carefully ladle Grandma's love into a large bowl.

She used to make jook for us after Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the availability of the turkey carcass and the fact that my family didn't care much for the dark meat of the bird. Of course we all loved her jook, a bland rice porridge that everyone else's grandmother and mother seemed to determined to render bland. Jook is called congee everywhere outside of Canton, in China. The way that everyone else makes it, makes me think of the word "congealed." My Grandma was not an exceptional cook, but her jook was outstanding and she guarded her recipe as if it were worth all the jade in the world.

My mother could do no justice to the dish, so I would spy without anyone's permission on our behalf. If I could've discovered the ingredients, maybe my mother could have duplicated it. I discovered the ingredients through subtle subterfuge over the years, but my Grandma was already wary and she did a perfect job of never letting me discover the precise amounts of those ingredients.

She'd put the turkey carcass in a pot of water on medium heat until it started boiling, then she would turn it down to low. Some ginger, some green onions, some leftover rice and some salt. It all seemed simple, yet there was a balance there that seemed to escape everyone else. So today my nose suggests to me that I am closer than ever, and I use a metal ladle to pour ersatz memories in the hope that they can bridge my soul to the past.

I go into the refrigerator to take out my small bottle of soy sauce when I notice something near the stove. It's a moth, and while it's not particularly large, it is flying in a rather determined elliptical pattern...kind of like a cross between a bat and a hawk swooping in on its prey. I move the pot over to another burner just in time, as the moth flings itself where the jook was just a second ago. I put a lid on the pot and pull my bowl away as the moth homes in on it like a guided missile.

This miserable creature seems determined, so I bring my bowl into the living room and sit down to eat. I spoon some goodness up, and then I realize that I have forgotten the soy sauce. I look over towards the kitchen and I see neither wing nor antenna of the crazed insect. I fetch the bottle and sit down, and the aroma caresses my face like Grandma did when she was proud of me. As I unscrew the cap, who should appear? The moth, and it's flying in even faster circles.

This doesn't make any sense at all; it's soup, not a light bulb or a flame. Is it the heat that draws the moth? Does it mistake the aroma for that of an incandescent light? Is it the spirit of another who coveted my Grandma's recipe and they are determined that I not enjoy it?

Is it the specter of a kamikaze pilot that mistakenly believes he never finished his mission? Or is it the ghost of my Grandma herself, trying to make sure that I won't achieve the state of perfection that only she could create? I drape my bowl with my napkin, making sure to cover it completely, and I return to the kitchen. I get a small glass and a take-out menu from the refrigerator.

The moth crawls across the napkin, its wings aflutter in anger and frustration. I bring the take-out menu across the table and the glass down, herding the moth into the glass. The moth is apoplectic, bouncing against the menu and the glass like a perpetual bullet. With difficulty, I open my front door, and then I let the moth case it is Grandma. I put everything down and I wash my hands. I have an appointment with a savory bowl from my past.

The jook has cooled enough that I don't need to blow on it. I dip my white porcelain spoon in the thickness and a nice piece of turkey with three pieces of green onion returns. I inhale the aroma for the last time and I devour the spoonful.

Your taste and smell are supposed to be interconnected, but in this case, my nose has deceived me. The taste is fine and it's better than most restaurants, yet I've made a poor version compared to that of my Grandma's. All the ingredients should be the same, yet it obviously is missing her love.


sandra seamans said...

It's not always the recipe but the hands that cooked it with such love that spice the dish.

I give my sons recipes but they always complain they don't taste the same.

This is such a lovely piece of writing, Cormac!

Valerie said...

Moths will be moths, except when they're a nuisance, then they become pests.I wonder if it was grandma hovering to provide that special touch that only grandma's seem to have. Enjoyed this post immensely.

SkylersDad said...

Excellent stuff, as usual sir!

Cormac Brown said...


Thanks and...

"It's not always the recipe but the hands that cooked it with such love that spice the dish."

Agreed, though hopefully you don't hold back any ingredients with your sons ; )


Thanks and ours are particularly nasty, and plentiful.

Sky Dad,

Thank you, sir!

okjimm said...

rather sounds like my efforts to re-create (NOT approximate) my German Grandmother's potatoe dumplings.

Not there, yet.... but I gotza great recipe for moth tacos if you need one! :)

Pyzahn said...

Ah geez, I was holding my breath there for a couple minutes just sure that damned moth was gonna get your beloved jook.

I assume you are not going to share the recipe? Or invite us over?

Doc said...

Make no mistake, the moth was Grandma, she was just frustated by the napkin in depositing her love.

Regardless of the results, the important part is you remembering her and the tenderness she had for you. There will always be more jook. There was only one of her.

I suggest a Sam Adams to wash it down with as it is robust and will compliment the soy sauce nicely, not to mention that it is full of history too.

Fantastic story my friend,

quin browne said...

i've missed reading you.

Paul Brazill said...

Lovely, lovely work.

Cormac Brown said...

Ok Jimm,

A recipe for "moth tacos?" I've got that covered, the moth from this story tried to attack my chili!

Unlike most cooking, dumplings require a certain amount of skill and practice, so best of luck to you.


You can drop by any time you want, though I don't know if you'd want to eat jook. It's an acquired taste...or "untaste" as it were, because the stuff can be fairly bland. My grandmother's was the exception and no, I never did get her recipe. I will hunt one down for you tomorrow and email it.


Thanks for the compliment and the wonderful words. I will pass on the Sam, though as I prefer Tsing Tao with Chinese food. No offense, it is just a personal preference and I love Sam Adams with all non-Mexican, non-Asian food.


And I miss you visiting around here, very much.

Paulie Decibels,

Thank you, thank you, sir.