Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Thank You Mrs. Neilson
That's my best friend, Warren. We grew up across the street from each other, but back then, he didn't have monkey friends, just a Chinaman. Every Thanksgiving, I think about someone I'm thankful for and this year, it's his Mom, Mrs. Neilson. Warren’s family was a big influence on my taste in food. I used to hate Thanksgiving and Christmas at home, but the Neilson’s taught me how to celebrate and in a lot of ways, what it was to be American.
It began with Warren eating at our house most week days. The kid was so damn hungry all the time, he'd eat at our house around 6 and then at his house around 9 cause they ate later. My mans never rang the door bell, we gave him the garage code so he just walked in the side door and right into the kitchen. Every time like clock work, it'd surprise the shit out of my Mom, but we’d set him up a plate, a chair, and some chopsticks, which he got really good at cause he actually followed instructions unlike myself. My Mom used chopsticks the wrong way holding them with her knuckles instead of fingers so I picked up the bad habits. Warren learned from my Dad and those red chopstick paper instructions though so he was pretty ill. I remember my brothers or Mom mumbling in Chinese, “This guy is taking the food so fast!” Me and my Dad loved it though. Warren was the only American that'd come to our house, try our food, understand, and appreciate it with gusto.
Before meeting Warren, I remember Thanksgiving at our house would consist of hot pot or some strange spread of sauteed Chinese items, cranberry sauce cause Mom liked it, sweet potato casserole from Boston Market, and sushi from Publix cause I guess it really made the table pop. A lot of friends I talked to like my homegirl, Kassie, STILL eat hot pot every year for Thanksgiving. You go girl. These days my Jamaican friends have turkey but it’s flanked by ox tail, beef patties, rice and peas, cabbage, etc. Simon and Kenny, the Fukes haha, have turkey with lobster steamed over e-fu noodles, salt fish fried rice, and dumplings. But at the time, I felt left out of the American experience and really didn’t like Thanksgiving until I went to Warren’s. Every Thanksgiving, I’d walk in through Warren’s garage door and get hammered by the smell of roast turkey, chicken cacciatore, biscuits, boudin balls, and of course Mrs. Neilson’s green bean casserole with fried onions on top. That was her dish. I remember seeing it come out of the oven with golden fried bits of onions on top, covering this stack of fresh green beans mixed in with cream of mushroom. It was a simple dish, but somehow just perfect. The savory, meaty, umami like flavor coming from the mushrooms, the body from the cream, texture from fried onions, and the snap of the green beans. I took an entire plate home to my Mom that had a bit of every thing.
“Mom, look it’s Thanksgiving!”
“Oh, I don’t want American food.”
“Try it! It’s really good! I promise.”
“No, no, no, American food makes me feel funny. Too much salt and cream.”
“Mom, come on, you are missing out! I ate it and it’s awesome.”
“Fine, fine, fine, what’s this?”
“Green bean casserole.”
She was sitting at the kitchen table just drinking tea so I put the plate down and she picked around the green beans with her chopsticks. Lifted it to her mouth, took a whiff, and bit it carefully.
“Oh! Oh! Oh my God! What is this?”
“I told you! Green bean casserole.”
“Casserole, mom. Like when Cantonese people put stuff in clay pots. That’s a casserole.”
“What’s it mean though?” “I dunno, it’s just casserole.”
That was me with cooking terms to this day. I can identify a casserole, but I still can’t tell you what it actually means and I’m too stubborn to look it up.
“We need more! How do we make this casserole?”
“I don’t know, I’ll call Warren.”
Later that day, Warren came over with a huge dish of green bean casserole for my Mom. He was so happy she liked it since she was so picky most of the time. For the first time, my Mom was eating food from a non-Chinese home and she loved it. After that day, I started taking over Thanksgiving and Christmas cooking at our house. Every other day of the year it's Mom, but on those days, it's my kitchen thanks to Mrs. Neilson and her green bean casserole. Every year, we make her dish and every year we think of her. Wherever you are Mrs. Neilson, I hope Warren is there to tell you the Huangs love you, and we're thinking of you.