For the first time in decades, I’ve been thinking about my mother’s one bedtime story.
“Tell me a story,” I’d beg, feverish or jumpy or bored or about to drift off in the backseat of our Camry.
My dad’s stories were full of all sorts of escapades. His characters (little girls like me) got into serious trouble—much more satisfying than most children’s entertainment. He could do great scary noises, like hissing and spitting like a pack of feral cats, that left me shrieking with terror and delight.
My mother only had the one story, of a baozi (steamed bun) seller. Before she started, she’d always pause and think, seemingly considering the plot. Even though it was always the same basic structure.
The seller goes to the market and gathers ingredients: ginger, shiitake mushrooms, pork, shrimp, eggs, chives, wood ear mushrooms, cabbage, and so much flour.
She or he (I still don’t know the seller’s gender because spoken Chinese doesn’t distinguish) would go back to their humble restaurant and start making the baozi.
They knead flour, water, and yeast to form dough for the wrappers.
They wash the veggies, checking carefully for dirt, and do the prep: Chop up cabbage, chives, mushrooms. Chop the ginger as teeny as possible—even smaller than that.
They make a different combination of filling in each bowl: pork and cabbage; shiitake, wood ear, shrimp, and egg (“My favorite!” I’d squeal); chive and egg.
They shape the dough into disks. They drop a plump spoonful of filling in, then pull up all the sides and pinch them together in the center.
Once there are enough baozi, they fill up the bamboo steamer basket and set it to boil, waiting until the air smells fragrant and the baozi are puffed.
After waiting for the baozi to cool so they wouldn’t burn their tongue, they taste one just to be sure. Delicious—always delicious—the nicest taste you can imagine.
[Sometimes I’d be soundly asleep by this point.]
The first batch of baozi is done, and just in time—it’s time to open!
Business is slow at first.
A mother comes in, asking for 8 chive and egg and 8 pork and cabbage baozi. “My children are coming home from school soon, and they’ll be really hungry.”
The baozi seller steams them fresh for her, then bags them up carefully, adding containers of dipping sauce: black vinegar with floating slivers of ginger.
An old man comes in by himself. “Just two of the shiitake and wood ear, please,” he said. “I live all alone these days and they make such a nice afternoon snack.”
“Absolutely,” said the baozi seller, setting to work.
And so on, until my mother too grew sleepy.
I haven’t written for weeks despite having nothing but time.
Here’s how I’ve rationalized it to myself: I write to explain ideas or experiences that are strange or novel to others, so they can take a turn peeking into my perspective.
But right now is probably the peak of shared experience the world will ever see.
It reminds me of 2017’s total solar eclipse. At the time, I marveled at much of the world could share the same experiences: the hunt for eclipse glasses, the sudden complete darkness and cold, the confusion of birds and bugs and pets. I could trace the eclipse path on maps and know precisely when it would start and stop for me, and the same for my friends across the country.
This lockdown is even more total. It too has its maps and predictions of paths. But it’s drawn-out and uncertain. It doles out insight in sluggish, reluctant dribbles instead of all-encompassing flashes with millisecond precision. I’m convinced there is no need for me to write, nothing I could say that people by the millions haven’t been thinking by the thousands.
I spend my writing time instead on Instagram and Youtube watching hours of cooking content. Famous people and random people alike, making an endless parade of pancakes and curries and pastas. I rationalize here that I’m learning techniques and recipes. But where I’m staying, I can’t use the kitchen, so any learning is hypothetical. And I have to admit that I’m not being discerning at all. I watch videos with ingredients I can’t eat (like meat) or don’t like (like parsley) with just as much avidity.
Should I watch something with a plot, I sometimes wonder.
But I get so much comfort watching nameless hands wash vegetables, chop them, season and stir and taste (proclaiming them delicious, always delicious, the nicest taste you can imagine.)
For the first time in decades, I remember my mother’s bedtime story. How funny that I insist on novelty but never minded hearing her single story throughout my childhood.
Am I right that writing and sharing are best used to share new ideas? Or can it be that even if something is not new—has not been new for millennia—that it can still soothe a feverish or bored or anxious child? Or adult?
I poke at why I found my mother’s story so comforting, why I cling to these food videos today.
I realize I crave strangeness and routine in equal pinches.
In my mother’s story, unpredictability comes from the baozi customers, the only part that varied with every telling. Who will stop in, and what will they want? It’s a minor, manageable uncertainty. And it pairs so nicely with cooking’s soothing predictability, the world’s oldest promise: chop and combine in the designated way, and you will end up with something perfectly delicious.
And there’s a secret ingredient, the background element that makes this whole thing work. It’s the underlying hum of the world ticking along. Each video from its nameless kitchen builds a stronger case, insists: the world remains big beyond imagination, even when it feels smaller than it has ever been.