Competition

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.

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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.”

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me, jay, and anna

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.

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vermont casserole

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.

Chicken:

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.

  1. ½ cup of flour

2 eggs, beaten

Oil

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.)

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9 Responses to Competition

  1. Ruth Kelman says:

    Dearest Ching,
    Having known most of you younguns’ since birth and the rest of you for 40 odd years I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this. I smiled all the way!!
    Ruth (Mrs. K)

  2. Julie Kelman says:

    loved the Chin Top Chef — know all competitiors are fierce! Wish the Kelmans were there! Can we participate next year – team Kelman and of course we’ll bring our own “grown-ups”/

  3. bastethebook says:

    Oh Kelmans, I love you so! Of course you should compete next year, as you are family, and if you, Mrs. K, are a grownup and a judge, then maybe you can do a dance during intermission.

  4. benkhsieh says:

    So Ching/Mei asked me to provide another side of the story, from the perspective of Me, Sarah, and Kellie, aka “Team Bacon”

    It’s a story of brave fighters undone by a foolish leader (i.e. me) who let his self-inflated love for his own ideas drive him beyond the boundaries of reality or time constraints or the simple fact that potatoes finish cooking when they’re damn ready, thank you very much, and that no amount of optimism, culinary creativity or pluck will make them cook any faster. Especially when you’re essentially using a 1960s easy bake oven in a cabin kitchen designed to make kraft mac and cheese. Having knives as sharp as a karate chop doesn’t help either.

    But I get ahead of myself.

    Given the state of affairs with the C&C market, as a team we knew that the challenge wasn’t about finding the awesome ingredients, but instead finding something that was “good enough.” In Top Chef terms, this was basically the Vermont version of the episode where they sent contestants into a gas station to make gourmet treats. OK. maybe not that bad. But I’m not exactly part owner of a Miami beach seafood restaurant with cool tattoos or a hipster name like “Romer”. I was just a grad student who had a fair amount of cooking experience. I wasn’t bad- I had a relatively big kitchen in my house in Champaign and cooked as much as possible. More importantly, I had eaten well growing up (my mom is a spectacular cook and although I’m biased I’ll still say she’s the best in the family).

    So yes, I knew the right end of a knife to hold. I knew that, through the years as my mom’s line chef, that from time to time, I could make a basil chiffonnade that was (her words) “Not Complete Fucking Bull Shit.” Had I won a James Beard award for…anything? (no) Did I have 20 years of experience eating and living in New York City? (I lived in the midwest, where I once had a waiter assume I didn’t know what a short rib was because I was from the midwest.)

    Anyway, for the C&C, the way I figured it, we really only had one ingredient that was worth betting the farm on. It was the smokehouse bacon that they had there. The adult Chins would regularly make trips to get the bacon there and even bring it back home with them after the Vermont festivities had ceased.

    Asians. Pork. It just made so much sense. I proposed this to the Sarah & Kellie. We all knew that the combination of Jay, Ching, and the Best Kitchen In Northern Vermont meant that we were up against some Cobra Kai-level odds. We also knew that the grown ups would be drinking and swearing at us for not giving them food, which meant that we wouldn’t win with bullshit salads or delicate broths. That meant drunk food. And Bacon was going to be our CRANE KICK!

    (If you don’t know what i’m talking about…) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oomCIXGzsR0

    The problem with that analogy is that the crane kick only worked for Ralph Maggio ONCE. It worked at the end of the movie, when he had nothing else to lose. He didn’t enter the tournament and immediately start Crane Kicking the shit out of everybody all the time. The montage song during the tournament fight sequence in the Karate Kid is entitled “You’re the best, around,” implying that being the best means having overall balance.

    Oh Joe Esposito your wisdom was wasted on me. “Lets Bacon the SHIT out of EVERYTHING.” I encouraged my team. Bacon potatoes anna with bacon brittle. Everybody likes Bacon. Everybody likes Anna (well, except for maybe Jay at one point.) I honestly can’t remember anything else we made. Except that it had bacon in it. CRANE KICK CRANE KICK CRANE KICK.

    (As an aside, I’d like to point out that bacon brittle was Sarah’s idea, and that it was actually the most kick ass thing we made. That was our true Crane Kick.)

    So, cue to the montage sequence of us in a dark cabin furiously frying bacon, chopping onions and potatoes and whatever else on a sticky linoleum tabletop with kitchen knives that had no business spreading butter on toast, let alone slicing root vegetables. In my head, I could see Jay and Ching and Anna dancing around Shao Yi’s kitchen, cackling to themselves as they worked with ninja precision using the finest tools and ingredients.

    CHING: “Jay, do you have the chinoise with the finer mesh?”
    JAY: “Ching, does this paprika have a high enough aster count for you?”
    ANNA: “Guys, I’ve finished flash frying the squash blossoms. Shall I start on the profiteroles?”

    After conferring with Ching, this was apparently not the case. However, back at the cabins, we didn’t have any pans with flat bottoms on them, so our potatoes Anna were browning unevenly.

    Ching can whinge about the hour delay all she wants, but it was what it was. We had to transport the food back from the cabins, get it into Shao Yi’s place, and endure the clucks of disapproval from our aunts and uncles. “HEY WE’RE FUCKING HUNGRY!” Uncle Ed screamed at me with his trademark discretion. “THIS SHIT BETTER BE GOOD.”

    So all of the other teams won something. Except team bacon. Jay/Ching/Anna won best overall. Big fucking deal. That’s like celebrating yet another Globe trotters win over the Washington Generals. Yar/Ming/Gia won most creative, because they made the show “Ace of Cakes” instead of “Top Chef.” Genius. Jan/Mei/Poole focused on an achievable goal given their resources and executed perfectly. they won “best taste.”

    But Mighty Team Bacon had struck out. I would argue we could have won the award for “Most mentions of the world “BULLSHIT” in the judge’s comments.” But that’s pretty hard to put on a trophy. Even if the trophy was literally a paper plate with the title written on it.

    To this day, I am a winless at cooking competitions. (my record is 0-2-1). I’d argue I can make a pretty good dinner, I guess I just get too focused on winning with dramatic moments rather than with just making the food tasty. For anyone about to enter an iron chef competition of their own, I’d just offer one piece of advice – save your crane kick for the end.

    • bastethebook says:

      Ben, just so you know, I’ll be quoting this for a while, and shouting CRANE KICK at cocktail parties. Also, some context here: this was an experiment. I wanted to test the theory that the best way to class up a free food blog was to inject it with a bit of classic, Confucian commentary tradition. Ben rose to the challenge and met it in spades. CRANE KICK, and may it continue.

    • Uncle AK says:

      0-2-1, who gave you the 1 ?

      Uncle AK

  5. Sho says:

    It is inspiring me to seriously start thinking of building the new house with 3 separate kichens. I’ve forgotten about that episode but oh what fun to relive it once more!

  6. Yeewan says:

    I was not there, but heard many versions – including the one where Xiaoyi and uncle Laoguang, when asked by me “why was Ching (Mei) and Jay in the same team given that they are both heavy weights?” Their reply, “Because no-one in their right minds want to be told to f**king go to hell every five minutes and the only cousin who could work with them is Anna, and unless they cut Anna up into 4 bits, it would be impossible. Better let them kill each other than anybody else.” Followed by “It was a good thing they won, because can you imagine what would happen if they didn;t win, MY kitchen (this was Xiaoyi)! and something will get killed, and we are not talking about the chicken.” Competitive Asian Americans with knives and a wok is apparently a scary thing.

  7. Poole says:

    just a quick correction. the teams were Mei/Gia/Yar and Me/Jan/Ming

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