It was one of those days when the pregnancy hormones were raging and conspired against my ability to face making dinner, after getting home very late, without crying. There was "nothing" in the refrigerator and attempts to suggest to my husband that we go out to dinner were, for various reasons, unsuccessful. I didn't want cheap takeout either. I wanted something balanced, something that was made with care and would deliver a salve for my frayed edges. Alas, the clock was ticking: A two year old can lose patience quickly. My mom, who cares for Meilee while I'm at work, usually doesn't eat much during the day. And then there's my zero-to-sixty in 3.4 seconds hunger that's a part of being pregnant.
I had to cook.
In the moment, when my emotions were skittering in every direction, looking for the steam vent, the tears fell as I trimmed the baby bok choy, sliced and rendered the Chinese sausage, blanched the broccoli, cubed the tofu. These were the ingredients I had and not until they were actually combined in the wok did dinner materialize.
After I rendered the Chinese sausage, I removed them from the wok and set them aside. I added some red pepper flakes and two cloves of smashed garlic to the wok and let them swim in the sweet, hot fat. In went the blanched broccoli with some soy sauce and a dash of rice vinegar. This was dish one. In the meantime, I took the remaining dozen of homemade dumplings out of the freezer to fry them in a skillet as potstickers. I rinsed the wok, heated some oil and added the baby bok choy, which gave up their moisture for the sauce. The sausage went in with some soy sauce and once everything had sizzled together for a minute, dish two was done. I quickly blanched the tofu in some lightly seasoned water for Meilee. I can't always guess her mood, so I try to have certain backup foods (such as her beloved tofu) in case she doesn't care for what the rest of us are eating.
By the time everything was on the table, I had regained my composure. But my mood was still depressed. I sat down with the weight of the long day, the sluggishness from not being able to take a true sick day for my cold, and the fatigue from cooking even a simple meal. I was a sack of potatoes that wanted to cascade onto to the floor.
In Meilee's current developmental stage, testing boundaries and throwing tantrums are par for the course, and it's not unusual for her to refuse to finish her dinner. But tonight, Meilee actually was eating her rice, tofu and some sausage, and sitting nicely in her chair. AND, she was using her chopsticks to eat instead of playing air drums.
I usually set her place with her kid-sized chopsticks and a spoon, and I usually repossess the chopsticks shortly thereafter -- to great protest -- to prevent a mishap. I believe that repeated exposure, whether to the chopsticks or diverse foods, will help to make Meilee a better eater in the long run. I figure it will all just click one day. Indeed, Meilee held her chopsticks and focused her eyes on her right hand as if she were willing it to make the necessary motions to grasp a bite of rice. While slightly clumsy, she managed to pick up a bite of rice and transfer it to her mouth. I praised her and she proceeded to repeat her feat several times.
To be clear, it is not unusual in Asian countries for two year olds to use chopsticks. But our meals straddle many cuisines, which means we're just as likely to use a fork and knife -- or our hands for pizza, burgers or sandwiches -- as we are chopsticks. I wouldn't have been surprised if it took a little longer for Meilee to master chopsticks. But there she was, maneuvering two little sticks better than some adults. I was so proud and I told her so. She knew she had accomplished something, too, because she started showing off a bit for the camera.
Suddenly, my mood shifted. Meilee's triumph swept away the vortex of desperation that had taken control of my senses. I wasn't necessarily in a happy place yet, but I definitely wasn't where I had started the evening. In a way, I had proven a point. Had we gotten cheap takeout, we probably would have eaten in front of the television (horrible habit, I know). But because I generally make it a point to cook dinner from whole ingredients and to insist on family meal at the dining table, we were able to have this chopsticks moment.
It was food for the soul.