Every year as summer approaches, I begin daydreaming about all the holidays I will not be taking with two little kids in tow and a bank account fattening for the August school-fee butchering. Visions of my husband and I reading silently on a beach, or having an uninterrupted dinner are momentary escapes from China injected into my mind during a child’s temper tantrum, and that’s pretty much it.
Or at least for me it seems… This year, my husband (who works for the stylish Italian retailer, Ermenegildo Zegna) has been given not one but three opportunities to flee Shanghai and drink aperitifs in Milan. Upon each return, he’s brought home descriptions of homemade mozzarella, locally grown cherry tomatoes, and the great taste of the mineral water (caveating it all with, “I was working the whole time of course”). In response, I’ve handed him a kid and fought the desire to seize his passport for a jealous shredding.
In an attempt to temper the rage and create some of my own summer Italian charm, I decided to declare an Italian day in my house, complete with alfresco dining. The porch got swept, the outdoor chair covers laundered and the folding dining table pulled out of the closet. A floral potted plant moved from the living room to the sunshine. With the exception of the actual scenery of China, it was perfect.
I made a four-course meal for lunch that Saturday. We started with edamame, carrot salad and mushroom salad for my daughter, tossed salad with homemade basil Italian dressing for the adults. Next came Italian sausages with mushrooms and onions, and pasta with pasta sauce made with fresh tomatoes topped with grated parmesan cheese. Mangoes, apples and Italian chocolates (courtesy of my husband) were up for dessert. I set out a bottle of wine on the table and said with a romantic flare, “Lunch is ready.”
“I’m not hungry,” said my three year-old. “And I don’t like that music.”
“Oh, you made lunch?” said my husband. “I’m off to the gym. I’ll eat when I get back.”
My infant son, clearly picking up the rejection vibe, spit out his first bite of food.
I slumped down in a moment of true depression. It has been a tough spring in our house. In February and March, I ramped up for the Shanghai International Literary Festival by publishing my second bilingual children’s book. In April, I launched the “Picky Eater’s Cookbook” with a big party. In between, I’ve been teaching, speaking, consulting and mothering. I haven’t had time to blog let alone spend two hours preparing one meal. My husband has seen little of me and the kids, and my children seem to spend every meal in front of the television. I so wanted everyone to appreciate the sunshine together for just one day. As I looked out the balcony, I was both sad and jealous. If we were Italian, I thought to myself, enjoying a meal together would be a priority and not an afterthought. It’s too bad we’re second- generation-immigrant-Indian-American-New Yorker-workaholics.
As I went further down that line of thinking, searching for some alternative secret to living, I began to realize that I was being ridiculously melodramatic. The answer was simple (and ultimately very American). Take no for an answer. Back in my mental can-do element, I straightened up and decided to simply ignore my hunger and wait for my husband.
Tong Ayi and I fed the kids. We cleaned and reset the table. I had some water, and nibbled on vegetables and played until my husband got home. Then I sent the children inside, closed the porch door and sat down across from him. He was still sweaty from the gym, and clearly tired from all of his travels, but I put pasta in his plate, served him some salad, poured him a glass of wine and said, “So how are you?”
“No how are you? How are things at work? What happened in Italy?” Miraculously, the last word came out devoid of all envious hatred.
“Good, I guess.”
“Did you get a lot done?”
“Yeah…” he glanced at me with a questioning look. Would I stop him again with a jealous groan? Or would I actually listen to him talk?
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Okay. So you know I was going for this project –“
Slowly, little by little, I went to Italy with my husband. We weren’t in palazzos or in cafes, but in the office together, the conference room, with his colleagues, in the conversations about his concerns and stresses. We were outside of grey practical Shanghai and in our own little world together. I can’t say that the hour we spent removed all visions of Mediterranean cocktails and bikinis. But it was definitely an escape.
When he finished, he said, “I’m sorry, did I bore you?”
“Not at all.” It was true. My interest in life was refreshed, my eye turned a bit back to its beauty. Most importantly, my love for my husband was tapped into once again.
If you feel inspired to recreate your own Italian menu, check out “The Picky Eater’s Cookbook.” It was inspired by my picture book, “Mika the Picky Eater” and created by myself and the same team: Monika Lin, a fabulous Shanghai-based artist, and Miranda Yao, owner of Shanghai’s best cooking school (in my opinion) The Kitchen At, Cooking Studio. Our bilingual Chinese – English cookbook brings Eastern and Western recipes together into one international culinary tour. Featured in the book is my daughter’s favorite edamame-carrot-mushroom salad (mentioned above), a roasted chicken recipe that will take you to Paris, and a whole section on homemade ravioli. The recipes are all designed to please the pickiest of palates, and invite all family members (including ayis) into the cooking and eating. The books can be found at all Lollipop stores and Platane. Look for them at Fields China soon as well (www.fieldschina.com). Or just contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, free preview and delivery.