So this is a story about my phenomenal cousins, and by far, my rawest, roughest writing ever. Having said that, I hope it provides a snapshot of some of my favorite people in all their glory, and explains why I love them as much as I do.
For this piece, I have to thank Ben Hsieh and Morgan Fahey for egging me on in a Facebook conversation. Below is my rant, slightly edited, that followed. Also recipe for fucked up, green Vermont casserole, is the responsibility and the trademark of Gia, Yar, and little Mei. They can post at their discretion.
Photographs are courtesy of Poole Chan.
Once a year, my extended family get together in Vermont. It’s a beautiful spot. We’ve been coming here since I was seven years old. We are next to a lake called Willoughby and it shines like crystal. We dive into its clear waters and feel our blood turn to icicles because in Vermont it doesn’t get much hotter than 60 degrees, even in August. I dream of my Vermont summer week; it smells of honeysuckle and manure, apples and maple syrup.
Also, our little corner of Vermont isn’t Middlebury, well-to-do hippie Vermont. It is far North, bum-fuck, home-schooling, Bible-thumping, gun-toting Vermont. About five miles away, there is a general supply slash hunting store, where taxidermied baby bears frolic over the deli counter, and a dead lynx cradles the CoffeeMate. My aunt Sho, who loves adventure and kookiness, first discovered this place years ago, and bought a farm ten years ago. Everyone knows us. We will be two hours of Lake Willoughby and people are like, “Oh, you bought the Lake View farm!” It is because we are the only yellow faces within a fifty-mile radius. It’s fun. We go hiking, elk watching, go-carting, or hit golf balls at the local driving range, which doubles as a cow pasture, and where the golf balls are stored in a rusty bathtub. We eat well, on picnic tables behind the house, by candlelight.
Recently, the cousins thought it would be neat to do a cooking competition. Divide into teams, shop for ingredients at the local market. Budget was 40 dollars, shopping time was half an hour, time to prep, cook, and plate was an hour. The older generation – whom, even though some of us are pushing middle age, we call the grownups, would be the judges. Basically, it was Top Chef meets a fish-out-of-water comedy. It will be a memorable event, frequently referred to in future conversations as Cousin Top Chef Day, Lunatic Vermont Casserole day, and perhaps, most fondly, The Day Jay Almost Made Little Anna Cry.
The cousins ranged from eleven to 40 in age. Including in-laws, we were 12 altogether, so were divided into four teams of three. The teams were selected by the youngest cousins – Anna, who was eleven years old at the time and her sister Kellie, who was thirteen. I was teamed with my oldest cousin, Jay, who is not so much a foodie as he is a food fascist, and also Anna. Anna and her sister Kellie decided that Jay and I, while arguably having the most collective experience might also kill each other given our volatile personalities. Plus, Anna, of all the cousins, had no kitchen experience whatsoever, so she could be fairly considered a handicap. All the rest of the cousins were either formidable cooks or at least excellent with kitchen prep. Also, they had calm, bonhomie, and organization, qualities that Jay and I lacked. All in all, in my opinion, it was a pretty well matched competition. There were a couple of mutters from people who disagreed.
Finally, kitchens are assigned by pulling out of a hat. In addition to my aunt Sho’s summer house, we have access to three rather shabby cabins about a mile down the road. Sho’s kitchen has santoku knives, cast iron pans, sea salt and dashi powder. The kitchens in the cabins have leaky gas, an oven/range not much wider than a computer console, and aluminum pots and pans that have been there since the 1970s.
I reach into the hat and pull out the slip that says main house.
My cousin Ben goes red. “What the FUCK?” Thirteen year old Kellie pats his hand, assuring him, “It’s okay Ben. Jay and Mei will still kill each other. Let’s hold on to that hope.” Jan, my sister-in-law, says, “Okay guys, when we get back to the main house tomorrow, we grab everything in the kitchen. Knives, spices, salt, pans. We raid that kitchen, do you understand? We’re gonna strip it bare.”
Jay and I high-five. Anna, our third teammate and the baby of the family, is an entrancing child. She speaks in a fluting voice, has doe eyes and long wavy hair, makes up nonsense fairy tales, and generally belongs in an Edwardian novel. When I get the MAIN HOUSE slip, Anna punches her fist in the air and says “YES!”
The next morning, we hit the supermarket. We do not, as it has been suggested, go to what we cousins fondly refer to as the taxidermy grocery. Mostly it is because Anna is still afraid of dead animals. Our local supermarket is called the C & C. It has an abundance of wilted lettuce, Millers Lite beer, and also R&C cream soda, which I’ve been unable to buy anywhere else, and also things smoked on corn cobs (cheddar cheese, bacon, and pork chops, all of them quite tasty). On a Sunday morning, it is crowded with size 22 women in denim cut-offs lining up to buy Snapple. Also, We are also chaperoned by two “adults;” my mother and my Aunt Kate stand, firmly rooted by the newspapers, in the corner with a stopwatch.
“Make sure that Jay and Mei don’t break any rules! NONE.” At least two cousins shout as we dash into the aisles. “Don’t worry,” they say, “we will.”
It is the invasion of the obnoxious Asian yuppies. Someone yells, “Where the fuck are the sun-dried tomatoes?” Another, “Oh my god, there’s pate. I wonder if it’s been here since 1999.” Jay and I are by far the worse, screaming at each other from separate aisles. “SCREW the curry powder,” I shout from the meat section. Jay is in the spices. “I don’t care if we have currants back at the house, we are not making buffalo currant curry meatballs.” “We’re doing the curry meatballs. You know that they will make us win.” “No. Also no Welsh’s grape jelly in the goddam chicken wings.” Actually these quotes are from when Jay and I are warming up and being playful. It gets truly uh-oh ugly, and it pains me too much to quote what followed. At some point, we both bring up dishes that the other has made that in the past, we have said we’ve loved, but we now say are shit. It gets that nasty. Little Anna thinks it would be a good idea to act as peacemaker. She trots up to us as we stand in a grocery aisle with our fists clenched, glaring, and says, in her delicate, Anna sing-song, “Guys, maybe if we just calmed down…”
Jay snaps, “Anna, if you have nothing meaningful to contribute, then shut up.”
Then it is back to our separate kitchens to do the cooking. All the “adults” remain behind in the main house, to make sure that Jay and I stay within the time limit. Specifically, it is my mother and Aunt Kate (Anna’s mother) who lean against the kitchen counter, watching the clock.
I have to say, once Jay and I get going, it’s a joy. Jay has been my big brother; he has known me since I was born; he is also, in my opinion, the person who has really taught me culinary daring. Over the years, we have cooked together a lot. So once we get the hang of it, we are communicating to each other in cryptic half sentences, dancing amongst the flames and the flashing knives, weaving around pans of spitting hot oil. Bottles of fish sauce and sesame oil go sliding across the countertop, with dried prunes and smoked trout, jars of peanut butter and cornflakes. Jay’s in charge and even though I generally a bit of a control nut in the kitchen, today I’m happy to be his sous. It’s the high that I think that one can only experience when cooking, competition, and kin unite.
Then there was Anna. “Um, guys, is there anything I can do?” She adds, “Um, I’ve never really used a knife before, or touched raw meat.” Jay rolls his eyes.
“Okay,” I say, and hand her a Sabbatier paring knife, child-sized but wickedly sharp. “You’ve got to start with knives somehow, so you can section the grapefruit.” I show her, with a couple of slashing motions, how. She takes up the knife and the grapefruit and goes, “Ummm.” Five minutes later, I see that she has done one section. “Anna,” I say, “can you pick up the pace?” Not long after, she says, “Um, guys, I’ve cut myself.”
Now grapefruit juice, like salt, on a cut, stings. I say, “I’m sorry Anna, but we don’t have time to get you a bandage.”
Afterwards, I have her stirring up pancakes and finally, I hand her a jar of honey and a bottle of Bullitt bourbon. “Okay,” I say, “mix the bourbon into the honey, and taste it as you go along. We want the honey pretty boozy, but not over-poweringly so.”
Anna looks at her mother, Aunt Kate, who has been keeping us company since the competition began. “Mom?”
Aunt Kate says, her eyes never wavering from the clock, “You heard your cousin.”
Jay and I make the time limit, but the kitchen is decked with grease and handprints of flour, which doesn’t exactly please Sho. We collapse into chairs and wait for everyone else – who waltz in about an hour and a half later. (Excuses were made: one team was locked out of their cabin, and then one of their ovens wasn’t working. To this day, I still don’t buy it.) Ben’s OCD Procter and Gamble mother, who has spent much of her life with focus groups, printed out scoring sheets for all the grownups/judges. There are moments when you thank God for having Asian American parents and this was one. They had all forced us into piano competitions, and even when we were small, there was no adult who would let you win at checkers. So in scoring from the grownup judges, there was no sugar-coated, everyone-is-a-winner attitude.
Jay and my dishes were far from perfect. For one thing, our chicken wings were supposed to be fried twice, and we couldn’t do it in the time allowed, so some of them were raw in the middle. Also, they were cold, due to the fact that the other teams were delayed. Plus, we got docked 17 points for, and I quote, “WHO THE FUCK THOUGHT THAT TEAMING THESE TWO GUYS WAS A GOOD IDEA?”
I love an underdog story. The little guys rallying, against all odds, to take over the big moneyed corporation with all the power. But I have to say that Jay, Anna, and I won, and we were not, as everyone continues to point out, the underdogs. It did, however, feel spectacular. Anna – cut, bruised, covered with oil, and smelling faintly of bourbon – was radiant. “Guys, we have to do this next year,” she says. “Same teams.” Kellie, her older sister, whom I can only describe as thoughtful, wry, and like the rest of us, both competitive and good-natured, replies, “Anna, yes, we should do this next year, but perhaps we want to re-think the teams.”
All the food was pretty good — we had bahn mi, potatoes Anna (not little Anna, but probably named after some 19th century chick whom Auguste Escoffier fancied) with caramelized bacon. Jay and I did a couple riffs on chicken — Vietnamese chicken wings with a glass of pinot (peanut butter and jelly chicken — jelly was the wine, I put my foot down on Jay wanting to incorporate Welsh’s into the chicken itself)), cornflake fried chicken with bourbon honey, and a smoked trout and grapefruit salad.
However, the one dish worth mentioning was the dish that won “most creative.” That team was Gia (Jay’s sister), Yar (my brother) and little Mei-mei (Yes, there are two of us. Mei is the most common nickname in Chinese. As Jay says, “If you walk into any Chinese daycare and say Mei, all the little girls look up.”). They decided that, from the beginning, they weren’t going to win – even though Gia, arguably, is a better cook than either myself or Jay — so they’d go for most creative. Gia and Mei-mei are designers, and Yar is a champion of the brilliant piss-take.
For the judges, they presented a casserole of smoked pork topped with mashed potatoes. Half the mashed potatoes were dyed a vivid green and shaped like Vermont. Originally, they had tried to color it with coriander and parsley, but then, in the end only half a bottle of food coloring would do. Upon Vermont was perched the red barn that’s on Sho’s property, made with red peppers and toothpicks. There were cows grazing, made of tinned olives and mushrooms. And there was a lake dug into the mashed potatoes, to represent our very own Lake Willoughby, and as a final flourish, they poured maple syrup into it and then let it flow between VT and NH to be the Connecticut River.
It was fucking genius.
Cornflake chicken with bourbon honey
Yar (my brother) said this was one of the best fried chickens that he had ever tasted. I don’t know, I think we are all really tired at that point so our palates were screwed. At first I objected to the cornflakes, but Jay told me that this was Colonel Saunders’ secret ingredient in his crunchy chicken, and as we both have a healthy respect for fast food, I let him have his way.
We paired this with pancakes made of Bisquick, smoked cheddar cheese, and fresh corn. For good reasons, there’s no recipe for them.
Also for the chicken, I did repeat it the other night, making a couple of revisions, but tried to make it in less than half an hour, in the slapdash method we employed. Really, though, with the seasoning of the chicken, we used everything on hand.
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 pint buttermilk
healthy dash of paprika
healthy dash of cayenne
healthy dash of hon-dashi (in Vermont there was some Vietnamese seasoning powder, lacking this, hondashi – the Japanese miracle umami powder — works.)
two cloves of garlic, well minced.
salt and pepper
1 cup of cornflakes, well crushed.
- ½ cup of flour
2 eggs, beaten
Season chicken well with salt and pepper and then marinate in the buttermilk and spices and the garlic. In the competition, this meant that the chicken sat for twenty minutes, I found that it tastes even better if you let it sit longer, even over night.
Then dust the chicken with flour, dip it into the egg, coat in the cornflakes, and in a pan over medium heat with about ¼ inch of oil, cook the chicken until done. It’s about seven minutes per side.
Serve with a drizzle of honey tempered with a dash of bourbon. (Optional.)