Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure
We leave for the cemetery before the sun is up, packing Fuji apples and a passion fruit crepe cake from Lady M’s. We had skipped visiting my dad’s grave last autumn for Chong Yang Festival due to my son’s Science Olympiad tournament, so I had been determined not to miss the visit for Qing Ming Festival. We always bring dad’s favorite foods: Fujis, the only apple sweet enough to suit his palate, and cake with no less than twenty layers of lacy crepes filled with a fruity, light cream. You are supposed to share the food with those who passed, but my son eyes the cake and thrums his fingers against his leg. Several other families picnic nearby, with steamed pork bao and rice cake and green onion pancakes that we smell from across the field. We see a group of seagulls, some sitting on tombstones and others flying above us, never straying too far before turning back, loitering around the scent of freshly fried things. Dad used to deep fry pork cutlets. He’d coat them with a mixture of panko breadcrumbs and flour but I stopped eating them for good in high school because I was trying to be healthy. Because grandma called me chubby and Chinese girls aren’t supposed to be chubby or curvy, only small and delicate. The cutlets would sit in a pile of grease, crumbs falling off and crust softening to mush as days passed and they remained unfinished. Dad wasn’t supposed to eat too much fried stuff at his age either. So before dad woke up, I’d throw them out in the trash can parked by the road. I’d leave the empty but crumb-covered plate in the sink, fish out a clean fork from the upper cabinets that required a stool for me to reach, and rest the fork on the plate’s edges. You finished everything so quickly, he’d say. It was delicious, I’d respond. That’d set him off for the next hour as he tried to impart, yet again, all of his culinary expertise onto me. Intuitive things like “you can add tomato to soup for sweetness” and “make sure to crack the shells before soaking the eggs in tea” became revolutionary ideas when he explained them. Dad died years ago from brain cancer. It was uneventful. I was at work; he was in the hospital. He didn’t want me taking days off to wait for him to die at his bedside, so I didn’t. Until the very day he died, he asked without fail if I was eating properly. I’d tell him, yes dad, and continue working through my lunch break and return home to boil broccoli and eggs for dinner.
When we get ready to leave the cemetery, I pack the apples and cake and begin to walk to the parking lot and my son runs up ahead, eager to return to the cool, air-conditioned car. My sister asks me, “Isn’t it a tradition that you’re supposed to leave the food?” Before I can answer, at least twenty seagulls swoop down to dad’s grave. They walk around, pecking at the barren grass fields, but when they find nothing, they return to perching on gravestones and watching the other families with their scallion pancakes and baos. I tell my son to put on his seatbelt. He ignores me and asks when we’ll be eating the crepe cake. I say soon, but don’t eat too much or else your appetite for dinner will be ruined. The cake will probably last a week. My son is in that growth phase where he can empty our Costco-stocked pantry in a few days. When dad used to cook for us, my son would ask for seconds and thirds and then another bowl of rice to go with fourths. I remember dad frowning, telling us that the roast duck or fried frog legs could be improved and he’d make them again the next day. I told him no, there’d be too many leftovers, although what I was really thinking was that my son eats enough meat and not enough vegetables as it is. Dad would say, what are you talking about, you ate this all the time when you were little, never wasted a single bite.