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The Wu Food Project

My 30-day Royal Panda diet make-over

Portrait of My Father

Portrait of My Father

One day and perhaps not much else separated George Washington and my father –at least in my childhood mind, and maybe, to some extent, even today.

I grew up in a time when George celebrated his own birthday, on February 22,  a day un-glommed into a generic President’s Day suited to the workaday business of a federal workforce. But it’s  not something I think the first president would have minded. It seems to me that Washington was his own man,  had his own things going, secure in his own talents and resources and thus not needful of all the fawning royal  hoopla that some of his day wished to bestow upon him.Washington loved his country and served it, but he had his own life.

My father was born on February 23, and to me, as a child, my self-reliant, independent daddy was heroic, the embodiment of all things noble and good, so that when the birthday of George Washington was celebrated as it used to be, I equated it with that of my father. Or my father’s with his. They were somewhat interchangeable.

No one need care about any of this—what’s interesting here is not my individual perspective on George Washington or my own dear father, but rather the question of how children’s feelings about their own fathers might alter their relationship to their country’s forefathers.  What if daddy had been abusive, or deserted our family, left us to shift for ourselves and we had to find our own way, relying only on our wits and luck? Perhaps a cracked liberty bell could ring less true?

Could it be that the dress blues that hung cool and immaculate in the hall closet through the  span of my father’s lifetime quietly whispered a mantra that liberty must be defended?  Would I have experienced the same patriotic sensibilities that shaped my childhood  if I had experienced a different father/daughter relationship?

By the time I came along, Daddy was done with WWII and the Korean War and was finally done with his time in the service. With the help of his brothers and my great uncle he built a home  for our family on the old homestead property where the cabin in which he was born once stood– and where one October night he would later take his last breath. The same oak trees he played under as a child also  shaded my childhood.

His retirement came during a recession that swallowed up the pride of many men  and probably his as well, but for me  it was a golden age of unlimited time, happily spent with my father, who called me his shadow, and much to my pride, his “little war buddy.”

His war buddy. Probably nothing daddy could have said to me or called me could have had a greater impact on my life. I learned to change spark plugs, build a fire, fish and most importantly, I learned to watch and listen and how to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. He spent many quiet hours with me, catching tadpoles with the  zest of a Jacques Cousteau,  and capturing glossy coated beetles during the day and lightening bugs at dusk. He led and I followed, whether it was along winding cow trails  in the woods or long straight rows of beans, squash, and corn.

A certain clearing in the midst of the tall pine woods was a magical spot where arrow heads and grinding stones could be found in the dry red clay dirt. His observations and stories of the past created within me  an awe for nature and an awareness that our footsteps fall in the footprints of others who have gone before us. We gathered limbs and tied them to trees, laying short branches across them and covering these crosshatches with pine straw to make teepees where my friends and I would lay woolen blankets and eat picnics of bologna sandwiches and potato chips while playing with bubble bouffant-ed Barbie dolls wearing chic sheathes and billowy ballgowns.

Very importantly, daddy  taught me how to hold my cards until the time was ripe to rummy– a lesson in the rewards of patience and the sweet pleasure of taking a calculated risk. Even as I washed and ironed my hair ribbons and wore petticoats to Sunday school, I knew myself to be a courageous and strong girl; I was that “war buddy” that you could depend on through thick and thin. I was strong and I was loved for being me.

I am completely humbled to think of the thousands of unearned blessings that have given shape to my life. And this makes me think of others. Perhaps a uniform also hangs in another child’s closet, but there is not a father coming home to hold them on his lap because  folds of fabric on a hanger are all that are left. Perhaps like my own children, they will grow up without a father to imbue their lives with daddiness. It is a great loss. For them,  and for us all. I’ve always been grateful to those who have picked up a trowel and in their own myriad ways attempted to help fill in the chinks left by the death of my children’s dads. Teachers and coaches, my own friends and beloveds, neighbors and unwitting but helpful strangers. You never know.

But one thing I think we do know. What we know of family is what we come to believe of the world.

Happy birthday, yesterday George. And happy birthday to you tomorrow, too. But today, happy birthday to my  father. May both of these men,  the one who helped father a nation, and the one who fathered me,  be remembered for the way they lived their lives as well as the life they gave to us.

My first fortune of 2014 suggested Chapeau Therapy.

My first fortune of 2014 suggested Chapeau Therapy.

Meals at Mr. Wu’s end with a sweet and fragrant postscript.  Soon after the table is cleared,  a small white plate arrives with a juicy half-moon of orange sliced into easy to eat sections. Mr. Wu tells me that it is considered good luck to munch on oranges after dinner.  This rings true–good luck and good health make excellent dinner partners.

Accompanying the auspicious citrus orb, on either side is the sweet part of dinner’s “P.S. de resistance.” Like Randall Jarrell’s postcards of Hope, tiny manuscripts enfolded in crisp sugar cookies arrive in unaddressed cellophane envelopes. You are faced with a momentous decision. Which fortune cookie to choose? I am of the opinion that the prevailing best practice is to take the cookie nearest to you. Applying logic to karma can be tricky, but the way I figure it, if Fate managed to FedEx your future to your table, then Fate has enough sense and know-how to put it as close as possible to your waiting hand.

Rather ironically, the most disappointing fortunes can be the ones predicting the most outrageously optimistic,  exotic outcomes. I am relatively certain that I will not “soon travel to a faraway land” or “receive a windfall next week.”

An actionable fortune!

An actionable fortune!

So I was thrilled that my first foretold experience of the new year was not only possible–but one that I could ensure came to pass. The sweet tweet read: “Try a new hat for a change in looks.  Be creative!”

Indeed! Done! The next day I donned a chapeau and headed for the office. After all, being creative is my job! It was a cold day, and the black felt hat with the velvet bow not only changed my appearance–it felt good.  I shared the slip of paper and we all had a good laugh.

One of my ads in a glass vase made for a creative hat stand.

An ad placed in a glass cylinder made a creative, if somewhat creepy looking hat stand in my office.

I was reminded that  big changes that are challenging and that seem almost beyond our control  often evolve from small seemingly insignificant changes that we can control. So in 2014, I’ll try something different more often–and I’ll feel free to be creative.  I guess sometimes the postscript can be the prelude to the future.

“You give me reason to live…Suspicious minds are talking/ They say my love is wrong/ They don’t know what love is…I know what love is.”

From “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, by Randy Newman.

Orange lacquered salmon fillet and ribbons of yellow and zucchini squashes

Orange lacquered salmon fillet and ribbons of yellow and zucchini squashes

Look for inspiration and you’ll find it–even if it’s some place you’d never think to look, like for example, NBC’s  Today Show. There I sat this morning with mug in hand and the TV on, wondering where all the flowers had gone, and whether  the sight of billions of God’s petals and seeds spilled and progressing along a Pasadena parade route would strike me as elating or depressing–when suddenly,  behold! Lo! A guest/expert on the show was encouraging folks to choose an inspiration word for the coming year that would serve as a “buck-me-up-and- remind-me-again-of-what’s-important-to-me”  inner signal.

Enchanted with the economical notion of substituting  one word  for the coming year’s  lengthy syllabus of resolutions, I resolved immediately to chuck my long list of “oughta-do’s”  and replace them with…what?  I’d have to think.  It would take more than a bon mot. It would take a mighty mot!  Thumbing through the dictionary of my psyche promised to  be an enjoyable endeavor.

Now New Year’s Day can be a really groovy day if you can stay in the glorious moment of possibility.  Which I can,  it’s a gift, and I like it. A lot. I can be good for one day. Even in the kitchen, where I can be my naughtiest bad girl self.

Isn’t it just the best when you find a dish that you can substitute for one that is less healthful–and you love it!  Great example:  shaved slices of zucchini and yellow squashes poached in the smallest amount of chicken broth and finished with the tiniest dollop of butter and lemon.

The squash ribbons cook to al dente very quickly.

The squash ribbons cook to al dente very quickly.

It’s so easy to make –I actually don’t have a mandolin so I use a regular vegetable peeler to make the long “noodles.”  The colors are amazing and are the perfect contrast to a nice wild-caught piece of salmon.  I coated the salmon with a slight dusting of cornmeal and sauteed it quickly in a bit of olive oil before tossing it into the oven at 425 with a smear of orange marmalade and lemon juice. Happily there will be enough to warm up for future meals.

Later, because as I said–I can be very, very good for one day, I went on a lovely walk through the neighborhood. The first thing I noticed was that the sky was not only a vibrant blue, but it was covered in sweet white curls of cirrus clouds as if a child had painted over the sky with a brush dipped in white tempura paint.

And yes, it was the opposite of that cloudless azure sky etched so deeply into my memory, the day that my daughter died, and Icarus fell to earth.

Looking up at this sky of blue and looking all around me, I felt so  glad and happy to be alive. And that’s when my “be-all” word for 2014 came to me: New Morning.

Look it up in Wikipedia and the song has the lamest of descriptions.  Something about expressing the simple joys of life on the farm. But it’s so much more. It’s about being happy just to “be.”

Morning is when I feel the promise of the day and when I feel the most energetic.Before I set a foot on the floor, I meditate on things that I want to understand and let my mind have its own way. It’s when all my most creative ideas come to me. Problems that glittered like isolated stars become graphically connected like constellations, so that the facts come together and make sense. Morning is good. And a new morning–that’s even better, because it means you have turned a page.

As the day grew colder and darker,  I threw on a heavy coat and drove to Mr. Wu’s  to celebrate all that is sentimental and true by lifting a cup of kindness with an auld acquaintance that should never be forgotten or lost to mind.

We both wished Mr. Wu a happy new year and settled in a for a dinner of Royal Panda shrimp, preceded by a small plate of Mr. Wu’s crispy and scrumptious shrimp rolls.

In all truth, the first day of the year could happily serve as the perfect blueprint for the rest of 2014.  It was a new morning, just like Bob Dylan wrote about:  “This must be the day all my dreams come true. So happy just to be alive underneath this sky of blue, On this new morning with you.”

“And there’s a hand my trusty friend, And give me a hand o’ thine, And we’ll take a right good-will draught,  For auld lang signe.”

                                            A black-and-white photograph of Bob Dylan

 

Blooming in the midst of my neighbors immaculate yard was this surprising rose-shroom.

There are them’s that like surprises and them’s that say they don’t.

I don’t know what I’d do without surprises. I love them. In fact, I spend everyday in eager anticipation of being surprised.

And usually I am rewarded. This is partly true because anyone living an examined life is going to be treated to a panoramic vista of wee to huge surprises as the day unfolds –but also, because people as a class all by themselves are  slap full of surprises.

In addition, Mother Nature holds a full hand of bizarre cards–like this, well, fungus thing that I encountered on a recent walk through my neighborhood. No need to travel to the wilds of the Serengeti or to the Amazon rainforest to witness something amazing–here it was, right at the tip-toe of my New Balance–a beefy-lipped mushroom thing the size of a charger that looked, as the ole Irish ditty goes, “Mighty Lak a Rose.”

It was the kind of surprising discovery that makes one long for grade school days, when those minutes of show and tell time allowed us to share the good, the weird, and the surprising news of our individual lives. Relevancy was not required.

Maybe somewhere there is an enlightened company, probably a start up company, that begins the day by allowing its employees to share whatever strikes their fancies. Much of what might be said could be dull as dirt–but I doubt it. I think that most days we’d walk back to our offices with a nugget of gold in our pocket–a detail of someone’s  life that surprised us.

What I like about surprises is that they quicken our senses, and quicken our minds. Surprises make us more creative, and bring us into the exact moment that is now.

This past week, Mr. Wu presented me with a wonderful surprise. It was one of those evenings when I just couldn’t think anymore, and I had no idea what to order–other than for some reason I did crave asparagus.

As I walked from my car,  the air felt muggy and oppressive. The storms from the gulf were coming up river from the gulf, sending strong gusts of wind that were twirling  the tops of the tall pine tress outside the Royal Panda. Inside, Mr. Wu surprised me with a light dish of  vibrantly green asparagus and sweet white scallops dressed with a spicy sauce.

Allowing other people to surprise us is a smart thing to do. Sometimes other people know us better than we know ourselves.

The figs in my black bucket that cost a buck at the dollar store.

Mr. Wu embraces fruit and enjoys serving it–and eating it–for dessert.

I like fruit, too, but sometimes finding fruit in its fruitiest state is at best a gamble. More than a few flavorless or mushy apples, pithy oranges, and rock hard peaches will put a serious dent in one’s ardor for the arbor.

Thank goodness for the summer months, when local farmers bring their fresh produce to roadside stands and farmers markets, and mouth-wateringly pungent,  drippy peaches and sweet juicy berries are abundant and just waiting to be had.

This past week though,  I’ve been enjoying my very own harvest–thanks to a very generous neighbor who doesn’t give a fig about figs.

“Take them all!” she encouraged, but I didn’t need much encouragement. Indeed, I’ve had a covetous eye on her tree for the past several weeks, and have been watching patiently  as the figs that began as hard little green knots  grew soft and fat –until finally the limbs of the tree began to droop ever so slightly.

Sliced figs on the baking sheet.

Then last Sunday I walked over and gathered a bucket of the lovely golden green globes. The rest is delicious history.

I cut all of the figs  into slices and baked some of them for future use as garnishes. Spread out and touching on the cookie sheet, they looked like a mosaic or a stained glass window.

The rest of the figs were stewed on the stove top with butter and brown sugar until they formed a beautiful sticky goo of fig preserves. I trolled through a variety of recipes, some of which called for the addition of balsamic vinegar or of a liquor of some ilk.

But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to add a single extra ingredient–their darn figginess was just so sumptuously figgy. Why mess with perfection?

Sourdough toasts with fresh chevre and homemade fig preserves.

But I did play with a variety of fig aps, like framing the colorful slices in tiny  squares of pastry and sprinkling them with a just a bit of  brown sugar before popping them in a hot oven.

But the hands-down favorite was a triple combination consisting of the rosemary and garlic sourdough rolls that I sliced and toasted and then spread with tart, creamy chevre and topped with the hot fig preserves.

What a delightful way to start the day with a cup of coffee–and it was equally good with a glass of crisp chardonnay as an appetizer.

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Inspired by Star, I painted my nails to match her Crayola yellow manicure.

Last week, I had ten reasons to smile every time I glanced at my canary-tipped fingers. And with the addition of several gold bangle bracelets and a Ferrari red top, not only had I catapulted out of my conservative box, I was time traveling back to a time when fashion was fun.

When you have a great job,  Uncle Sam doesn’t come anywhere close to getting a share of your compensation. The rewards can come to you from all directions. Maybe it’s flexibility, maybe it’s a relaxed workplace, or neat co-workers. I’m blessed to put a check by all of those factors, but one of the best things about my job is that I get to meet lots of fascinating people. Enter Star, a vibrantly unique young woman who walks in her own force field of creative energy.

Star is pre-zactly the sort of person I might otherwise never meet if it weren’t for the intersecting lines of our lines of work. She’s all mid-towny and gloriously avant garde,  with curly blonde hair bursting forth from colorful scarves and headbands while feather earrings flit happily near her shoulders. There is always an element of surprise about her colorful and trend-setting outfits that is perfectly, absolutely  right. It comes as no surprise that she is working as a stylist with a husband and wife team who are two of the most talented people in the fashion business.

A rainbow awaits!

Star finds herself at that splendidly exciting cusp that marks your late 20’s and early 30’s–life still teems with an infinite number of  discoveries–but there is a light dusting of accumulated experiences to inform decision making.  Like most people destined to be super-successful, she has shaped what is quite obviously an exceptional talent and eye with an exceptional education. And there’s more than that– I’m profoundly touched by her blunt honesty coupled with tender concern as she goes about her work.  And she makes me laugh.

In Star, I see something of long-ago-me; from the git-go I enjoyed seeing her come into the store to choose her “this’s and that’s” for photo shoots.  However, I have a feeling that at first my “me-ness” might have been shrouded by the environment. But no matter.
I was free to watch and absorb Star’s talent as she worked at various fashion shoots, and it wasn’t long before I found myself thumbing through hangers and sizing up shoes in a new way.  And now, mama’s got a brand new bag, and shoes, and clothes!

My first foray took me to Anthropologie at Saddle Creek. The music and the vibe of the place made it really easy to channel my new muse as I held each article of clothing up to the same scrutiny, “What would Star say?”

I left with a bag full of clothes (that are me) and a new attitude about myself. It was a thrill to try on clothes and to realize that I needed smaller sizes.  The Wu food Project has led me to lose over 25 pounds, and I’ve not spent one day feeling hungry or listless because of “dieting”.

A big, big part of the Wu Food Project has been looking for signs along the way, and asking for directions. Lucky me to have discovered this bright southern Star to help guide me back to me.

It’s funny how something as seemingly trivial as yellow ( or cornflower blue, or pale lilac, or  sea foam green) nail polish could be so instrumental in making me feel in touch with my old self. And yet it makes perfect sense. There is a joy and a serenity in being the same person on the outside that you are on the inside. Thanks to Star there’s a new twinkle in my eye–and in my closet!

From the rock musical, “Hair”…

Good Morning,  Star Shine

Good morning starshine
The earth says hello
You twinkle above us
We twinkle below

Good morning starshine
You lead us along
My love and me as we sing
Our early morning singing song

Good mornin’ starshine
There’s love in your skies
reflecting the sunlight
in my lovers eyes

Good morning starshine
so happy to be
My love and me , as we sing
Our early morning singing song

Can you hear me?
Singing a song
Loving a song

Carnations being readied for presentation on Mother’s Day

Every culture has its own offbeat most-favored delicacy –an esoteric treat whose mere mention causes  the collective  socks of its passionate fans to roll up and down.

For many Southerners, and for me in particular, there’s nothing better than a plate full of sweet and delicious  crappie, the lithesome  and wondrous cousin of the sunfish (pronounced “croppy”).  The other day I mentioned this preference to Mr. Wu –well, I more than mentioned it. In fact, it is possible that I may have rhapsodized, rather passionately,  which explains why when Mr. Wu called me on Saturday night to wish me a happy Mother’s Day, he announced that he had gone fishing and caught  some crappie that had my name on it for my Mother’s Day dinner.

Like truffles, crappie qualify as a gourmet treat on the basis of their high unobtainium quotient. You can’t buy these fine little fish at your local grocery. In fact, you can’t buy them at any grocery because they are classified as a game fish.  Mr. Wu, an expert angler who prefers to catch striper bass,  told me that even he was amazed to catch such a large crappie.

Mr. Wu with crappie

When he called, Mr. Wu asked me how I’d like him to prepare the crappie. Well, honestly, I’ve only had it fixed one way–filleted and fried. Oh it’s mighty fine that way, folks. But I knew that this would be tantamount to putting ketchup on escargot to Mr. Wu, so I asked him what his thoughts were.

“Ahhhh, you could have it with a chili sauce, or steamed,” he suggested in an obviously noncommittal fashion.He may well be the most well-mannered person I’ve ever met.Getting him to tell me how he would he prepare  something that he wanted to cook in order to please me was obviously going to require a Jedi minuet.

“Hmmm, well, it’s such a delicate flavored fish,” I opined, fishing, you might say, for a suggestion from Mr. Wu. “Probably a spicy sauce would overwhelm the sweetness of the crappie,” I hoped I was on the right track, but Mr. Wu was not showing any cards.

Finally I simply asked him straight out, “Mr. Wu, what do you think?”

“I would steam it,” he answered quickly. Clearly,  there was only one correct answer, and I quickly agreed with his insight.

When I arrived late Saturday night, Mr. Wu was seated in the rear of the Royal Panda carving roses from carrots and the wait staff was seated nearby, busily snipping the stems of a bucket of ruffled pink carnations and folding them into colorful cones of festive wrapping paper to be given to moms on Sunday.

Shrimp rolls

A Mother’s Day Treat

Mr. Wu surprised me with a glass of Chardonnay and a small plate of his crispy shrimp rolls. I say surprised because he isn’t enthusiastic about me over indulging in either one, preferring that I invest in a wiser use of calories. We shared a hearty laugh over this rare opportunity to indulge because it was Mother’s Day.

And yes, even though it was Saturday night, it was indeed Mother’s Day somewhere. In fact, it was already Mother’s Day in Taiwan, and Mr. Wu told me that before he went to bed he would call his mom and wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. Who knew? Well, I didn’t. Turns out that Mother’s Day has been celebrated in Taiwan and China for years. This should provide us all with some cheer that moms are unilaterally appreciated east and west.

And then the crappie appeared, made manifest in a cloak of vivid red pepper, green onion, and ginger and resting in a pool of brown, aromatic broth. It was a thing of beauty. I was overwhelmed by Mr. Wu’s kindness. Even if I had never taken a bite, it was such a generous and thoughtful gesture. The world at that moment assumed a sweet oneness.

Crappie a la Wu

Crappie a la Wu

And so it is with the Wu Food Project, which may be more about Wu and his relationship to food than it is about Wu food. It may also have evolved in such a way that it is now more about a work in progress than it is a project.As I continue to eat healthier, I find more rather than less pleasure in the food I eat.

There was more crappie than even I could eat, so Mr. Wu wrapped it up for me, and I had crappie for breakfast. Later today I’ll pick up my mom and and we’ll gather round the set with my sons and watch the Grizzlies in the Grind House of FedEx Forum and hope for a victory.

But already, thanks to Mr. Wu, it’s been the most wonderful and crappie  Mother’s Day ever!

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