Bonded By Foods

The first one was a blue-blooded WASP who told me at the Thanksgiving dinner table that I was a fool for refusing one of her special martinis and for being a vegetarian. She took me to lunch when I was 21 and offered to buy me a mink coat if I’d talk her son into joining the family brokerage business which he had no intention of doing. After reminding her that as a vegetarian I wouldn’t be happy wearing a mink, and that her son should be free to choose his own path, she called me a fool again, and proceeded to drink the rest of her lunch.

chiangkitchenThe next was Cecilia, the Chinese grand dame who wasn’t too happy with me either. Not only was I still a vegetarian in those days, but I still wasn’t a drinker. The person James Beard himself credited with introducing “real” Chinese food to the States, good food and fine wine is Cecilia Chiang’s stock and trade. They are also her passion. She thought I was “no fun” because I wouldn’t try pork belly and drink Dom Perignon. Being “no fun” is a capital sin around Cecelia, and did not represent the family well.

My third, last, and dare I say, final mother-in-law wasn’t too crazy about me either. She didn’t care what I ate or drank, but I wasn’t Jewish and didn’t convince her son to move back to New York City, aka, back to her. I also came with a four year old half Chinese daughter in tow whom she remarked looked “so Asian”. As a woman whose mother died when I was 13, I really did want them all to like me. Hell, I wanted them all to love me, but it was not to be. I was never the girl any of them would’ve picked for their precious and only son. (Yep, there’s that pattern again!)

I came to terms with the fact that any wish I might have had for some motherly acceptance or affection was a ship that had sailed years ago with my own mom at the helm and have been content with the memories I hold of her and the Irish beauty she was. My hope thus became that my children would have acceptance, love and a wonderful relationship with their grandmothers. Sadly, my youngest daughter’s grandmother died when my daughter was five, but my eldest hit the jackpot with Cecilia.

chiangfamilyThey are, to use a food analogy, two peas in a pod. And it fills my heart with joy. My daughter Siena is smart and lively and will eat anything. She resembles her dad, who is tall and lanky and being part of the Chiang food dynasty, he is daring and curious about food. Both father and daughter will stop, chat with, purchase and eat food from any street vendor anywhere in the world. Taking my eldest to dinner one must be prepared to spring for at least three courses; always a starter, a main course and one dessert, if not two. For years I’d laugh and say “If it eats like a Chiang, it’s a Chiang!” She does her grandma proud!

When Siena graduated from Vassar a few years ago, it broke my heart that her grandmother couldn’t be there. She had surgery at the time and couldn’t fly. Having come from China to America, she started out with a hole in the wall Chinese restaurant on Polk Street in San Francisco. She grew that into the famous Mandarin on Ghirardelli Square and then expanded to Beverly Hills. Having her granddaughter graduate from Vassar with honors was a huge event for her. I so wished she could have been there.

Possibly because Siena is the daughter of her number one and only son, the highest ranking human in any Chinese family, Cecilia was smitten with Siena from the get go. She is also a fearless and unconventional woman who has always blazed her own trail. It didn’t matter that Siena is of mixed race and not the hoped for boy, still a prize in many Chinese families. Cecilia greeted her with open arms, wrapped them tightly around her and has held on for 24 years as of last May 13th. Pictures of Siena line the walls of her home along side her best friend Alice Waters, visiting world dignitaries, Chinese movie stars, and other celebrity diners at the Mandarin.

chianggranddaughterLast month Cecilia flew from her home in San Francisco to New York City to receive the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award at a dinner at Lincoln Center. Siena, now a working woman in NYC, spent four nights rooming with her grandmother at The Palace Hotel. Four days of continuous meals and mini meals all over Manhattan with people who couldn’t get enough of Cecilia and her lust for life. Siena kept me in the loop with constant texting. Never have I been happier with advanced technology!

“At Balthazar with Nei Nei and her friends. Great Fries!”

“Uptown grabbing a bite with more friends”

“Having tea at the Waldorf with Lauren and John. Tea’s getting cold but we’ve finished a bottle of Champagne!”

The best for me were the texts that came in the night of the big dinner. Sentimental and totally in love with the beautiful family I’ve been blessed with, the texts of that night will never be deleted from my mind or heart. They kept me in the loop all night and were shared with my husband and Siena’s younger sister, allowing us all to be a part of Nei-nei’s (the name for one’s paternal grandmother in Mandarin, and what we all, including Siena’s younger sister, call Cecilia) big night. My personal favorite came in towards the end of the dinner when Cecilia was up at the dais with an illuminated portrait of her lit on a large screen. Siena texted me a gift: “I have the MOST WONDERFUL Family!”

I also love the ones that came in after 10PM Los Angeles time, meaning after 1AM in NYC: “In cab now heading to Del Posto for after-party. Pooping out and have to be up for work. The woman is an Ever Ready battery!” “Now at Per Se. More champagne on the way. What planet does my grandmother come from!”

chiangmedalI love Cecelia. She has taught me many things over the years by being my friend and my daughter’s grandmother. When she is not the mother-in-law of a young woman who goes against everything she stands for, she is a terrific friend. She loves life and is open and interested in everyone; the young, the old, the rich and the poor, as long as they are interesting, upbeat, authentic and excited to eat her food!

Though divorced for over 30 years from Philip’s father, who lived in Tokyo before his death in 1996, he would stay with her whenever he came to the States. She’d whip herself into a frenzy preparing for his arrival. She’d stock the house with his favorite foods and brands of liquor. Bought books and magazines she knew he’d be interested in reading and made sure Papa’s room was the way he liked it. There was a deeply imbedded old-world way and respect about it that I felt grateful to witness.

Cecilia Chiang is a terrific grandmother. The picture of her with Siena, taken on one of their pit stops on their recent trip, brings tears of gratitude and joy to my Irish eyes. She’s taught me a lot, my daughter’s grandmother has, about what’s important in life and what family is all about. One thing I’ve learned on my own though is you only get one mother, even if all one has to hold on to are memories.

Cecilia, I’m sure, has sat at more than one dinner table over the last couple of years and toasted her granddaughter, Siena. Toasted her for her brains, beauty, and, contrary to her mother, for being tons of fun!


LA based Writer, Annie Stein, has written for C and More Magazines, NYTimes and is a regular blogger on Huffington Post. She runs creative writing workshops for at risk teens.