by Jenne Hsien Patrick
Ode to Everyone at the Table
When Mama cooks dinner she makes one dish
per person plus one or two; we patiently wait,
tightly packed, seated round the table made long
with two extensions that are never put away. My thighs brush
against 阿姨 on one side and my sister on the other,
at the long plastic wrapped table you can’t see the top of,
every inch is covered in plates of food. In front of me
is a mountain of rice in a bowl and a whole fish in broth,
its eyes intact, its limp tail hanging over the lip, dripping
sauce onto my napkin and I can’t help it, I lean in to lick
the puddle before we start eating. Everyone is at the table
not just on holidays but every Saturday night, our door is open
to all but no one eats until Mama sits down.
Some Saturdays Mama is tired from the hours at the shipyard
so there is a hot pot or two plugged in with a tail of three or four
extension cords to reach the wall outlet. Raw eggs cracked
and whisked in tiny porcelain bowls, crushing sesame and yellow
yolk, pasted into sauce. Boiling, boiling, our faces grow red
from steam and sauna. 大舅舅 is reaching across the table
curling raw meat onto his chopsticks, he asks me to count
1-2-3-4 as he dunks it into the bubbling broth — this is the amount
of time to perfectly pink every slice of beef
that Mama has pounded for us with her serrated splintered mallet,
each bite in our mouth first tendered by her hands.
Everyone is at the table: Daddy, who has just come back from a run,
婆婆 who just changed into her nicest red sweater,
my cousin’s 婆婆 who only drinks hot water.
The brothers and sisters, they all show up: Uncle Chris
and 阿姨 who is immediately kicked out of the kitchen by her sister,
小舅舅 who stays out of the kitchen, hangs out with us kids,
大舅舅 and 舅媽 who are late from closing up the donut shop,
and the cousins, we hide and sneak candies in 婆婆’s bedroom.
I run to greet them all at the front door when they arrive,
they pick me up, whirl me around, call me darling
in every one of our languages that I know all mean we are home.
Mama sends out no invitations, there are no formal table settings,
dinner is Mama’s temple, so many dishes on the table
like it’s Lunar New Year every Saturday. What is dinner
but everyone at the table, that’s how we do it, Mama,
everyone is at the table, stop cooking, come eat.
Feature illustration by Jenne Hsien Patrick.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!