One of the things we do in Chinatown is write down some of the stories, the outlines of stories as people tell them. In most neighborhoods, the participants must write their own stories. It is, after all, a writing class. We help people to write when arthritis or other issues make writing difficult or painful, but we ask everyone else to write their own work, even if they don't think they know how to write well. I give prompts in class to help them along. In one of these I ask them to tell a love story (it doesn't have to be their own). In another, I ask them to complete the sentence, "My mother never..." They don't have to say anything traumatic, or negative about their mothers, but rather than saying what their mothers are "polite, interesting, loving," they should start by describing what she was not. It always yields something interesting. We discover mothers who never learned to ride a bicycle, who never sat down all day, even at dinnertime, who never left the house without putting on her make up and drinking a full glass of water. I also ask them to write a food memory, a story about food.
Well, in Chinatown, things are more complicated. Many of the people in class aren't fluent enough in English to write in notebooks, and so they write in Chinese. A few more haven't had much experience writing in Chinese, either because education was at a premium during their childhoods in which their country was at war, or because they've lived away from China for decades and have not had experience writing in Chinese for long sentences and paragraphs. So, we help them. When I had translators, I would work with them one on one in the classroom. While other students were writing their stories down, I would essentially take dictation from one or two of them. One man talked to me about cooking chicken feet, which he considered to be his specialty.
In my notebook I have pages of his discussion about chicken feet. When I met with Alexis and Kwan a few weeks ago, we went over all the stories that the seniors had written and told. Kwan paged through their notebooks translating a few snatches of Chinese on the fly, while I paged through my notebook for notes. I have poems about roosters and bathrooms. I have a description of a near drowning. I have love stories and stories of cannibalism. And I have a recipe for making chicken feet. I read some of it to Kwan, because I thought my note-taking was so bad.
"Choose the big feet. Cook a pot of water. Defrost the feet. Get rid of the nails. Cut feet in half. Deep fry in oil. Keep frying skill is the most important process. Then wash with hot water to get rid of the grease. Add ginger and spice. Put in cooking pot. Cook for an hour to get the spice and salt to mix. Add molasses for color. After cooking, let it soak in hot water for another hour. Then you let it dry off. Cool it again. Put it back in a pot with spice and ginger a couple of times to make sure the chicken is crunchy. At restaurants, their chicken feet are too soft. Not crunchy."
I looked up at Kwan and shook my head as if to say, "I got this wrong, right?" She nodded gravely at me and said, "That is a good recipe. If you follow that exactly, you will have cooked chicken feet."