Balsamic, for Zhenjiang vinegar.
Letters, for the family gathered.
A Cuisinart, for many hands.
Petty burglars, for warring bands.
A baby’s room, for tight quarters.
Passing cars, for neighbors.
Lawn-mower buzzing, for bicycle bells.
Cod fillets, for carp head-to-tail.
Children who overhear the language,
for children who speak the language.
Virginia ham, for Jinhua ham,
and nothing, for the noodle man,
calling as he bears his pole
down alley and street, its baskets full
of pickled mustard, scallions, spice,
minced pork, and a stove he lights
where the customer happens to be,
the balance of hot, sour, salty, sweet,
which decades later you still crave,
a formula he’ll take to the grave.
That Almond Dessert
We must have known it as Almond Float, thanks to Joyce Chen.
Indeed, it floated in the fruit cocktail, the maraschino cherries
as treasured as the tender white cubes that have so many names
I no longer know which we used, the nomenclature muddled further
by my later learning to say xingren doufu, which translates
to Almond Tofu, a reference not to what it is, but to how it appears.
For similar reasons, or to clarify for guests, we sometimes called it
Almond Jell-O, despite Jell-O’s omission, to this day, of the flavor.
Meanwhile, restaurants may have offered it as Almond Junket
for its likeness to the English dessert made from milk and rennet,
junket having come from the Latin iuncata, reed basket, in which
cheese was made, and from which the Italian soft cheese giuncata
gets its name, all of which is not inaccurate because—contrary
to what they say about the Chinese and dairy—there was milk in ours, too.
This potentially put it closer to pudding than tofu, but its silky
texture evoked the most delicate bean curd, which may be why
it was also known as Almond Curd, which confusingly implies
that almonds can curdle, that somewhere lies an Almond Whey.
In any case, pudding lacks shape and makes a poor reference
for a Chinese audience. Perhaps to erase all cultural confusion,
the dessert also went by Almond Lake, as anyone can comprehend
a body of water in which something cool and almondy
is suspended. Looking back, Almond Junket is the only name
we never used, surely because it sounded like an illicitly
funded cruise or evoked the notion of junk, which made us feel
foreign, pertaining to trash. But now fruit cocktail is what gets
consigned to the heap, canned foods being spurned unless you seal
and boil each jar yourself. And something about a sweet finale
aligned with gratuitous travel enchants, promising a destination
remote and novel, or remote and familiar, like ancient memory.