Raise A Toast!
On my second trip to Shandong (山东), my partner’s home province, his family asked me if I knew how to cook. Truthfully, I’m an average cook and I don’t really enjoy cooking, but I could see an anxious look in my mother-in-law’s expectant eyes. They flickered a warning to tread lightly in my response.
I expressed that I’m not bad at cooking Western-style cuisine, but I’m best at baking, which is still true, but gentler.
At the time, I didn’t know the word for “oven.” For “baking” my dictionary gave me the verb “烤”(kăo) and so I explained that every kitchen in North America comes with a square-shaped device expressly designed to “kăo” things like bread, cookies, etc.
My mother-in-law’s face lit up. She disappeared out the back door and returned about ten minutes later with what looked like a child’s Easy Bake oven covered in dust and cobwebs. She had dug it out of Guo Jian’s grandfather’s shed. It was such an old appliance that the cord was cloth-covered and the side and top were a 70’s shade of orange.
“They bought this many years ago. No one knew how to use it so it ended up in the shed. We don’t really bake in Chinese cooking. Anyway, do you want it?”
My eyes widened with surprise. I had purchased a small toaster oven in Beijing, but it only cooked six cookies at a time and those took 20 minutes a tray because they had to be on a low setting or else they’d burn. Here was a slightly larger toaster oven, but I could already tell that it would house at least 9 cookies comfortably, not to mention the fact that its knobs and settings were all written in English.
“Is this what they have in every kitchen in Canada?” she asked.
“Well, that’s the idea,” I said, “But much larger.”
“But this is great! I’ll definitely use it, thank you!” I added, hastily, for fear that I would seem ungrateful.
We were still planning to be there for a few more days and so naturally they wanted me to “kăo” something in it. After we had cleaned it up and tested that it still worked, I decided to bake cookies since I had a pretty good recipe stored in my brain.
I headed off to the store with the hopes of finding some basics. That was when I discovered that chocolate chips are not really Chinese, and nor is soft brown sugar. I only found the coarse “红糖” or “red sugar” (which is just a darker, more molasses-flavoured brown sugar) and had to substitute chunks of chocolate bars for the chocolate chips. After switching to a larger supermarket, as well, I was finally able to buy real butter. Despite being a town of five million, Zibo (淄博) was no Beijing.
Oh, and I also picked up a loaf of bread, thinking that toast with butter in the morning might just be a nice treat for this Westerner stranded in Shandong province!
After spending two solid hours after supper prepping and then baking the cookies in shifts, (which required experimenting with the temperature gauge and burning a tray—oops!) I finally had a plate of warm cookies to introduce to the family. Also, because of the way that the tray fit into the oven, there was a bit of extra room to cut a piece of bread in two thin strips and toast it up alongside of the cookies. The morning seemed too far away; I couldn’t resist a piece of this comfort food as a “chef’s reward” just before bed.
When the last tray of cookies came out, along with the toast, my partner’s aunt asked me about the toasted bread that I had set to one side. I explained that it was just simple toast with butter and I offered her a bite.
The cookies went around and everyone politely took one, but Guo Jian’s aunt raved about the toast she had just sampled. So, while everyone else was taking small bites out of the cookies that they very openly deemed to be “far too sweet” and “slightly strange” in flavour, I was encouraged to put a few more slices of bread in the oven so that everyone else could try this “烤面包”(kăo miànbāo = toasted bread) that his aunt wanted more of.
“Have you never had toast before?” I asked them, surprised. “No, we don’t really ‘kăo’ things, remember?” Guo Jian responded quickly, rocking me back on my proverbial heels as I realized that I had made a similar quick assumption about cultural practice that they frequently do about me. Oops. Isn’t it amazing that something we have known our whole lives—like toast—is something that could be new and foreign to others? I love it!
So I just followed that up by excitedly explaining all the ways that we eat toast: with butter, with peanut butter, with jam, as the outside of sandwiches, sometimes with egg and cinnamon and we call that “French toast,” etc.
They were fascinated.
When those slices of toast came out of the oven and were passed around, they were greeted with nods of approval like I was suddenly a gourmet chef from the West. My mother-in-law’s eyes sparkled as she discovered that my foreignness came with hidden talents after all.
You see, a Chinese mother needs to know that her daughter-in-law will be able to feed her son, not to mention them when they’re old, as it is the Chinese tradition for the elderly to be cared for at home by the younger generation, and particularly the women! Of course, through the lens of my education and cultural upbringing, I resent the fact that my gender is relegated to be in the kitchen to fulfill this massive responsibility. Chinese culture, however, is still so gender segregated that when I commented that Guo Jian’s existing knowledge of Chinese cooking would certainly suffice our household, the older generation thought I was joking.
I can make toast, though.
Guo Jian’s aunt and uncle wanted seconds. The half-eaten cookies were scattered around the room, left despondent on the edges of the coffee table or on the arms of their chairs, while they hungrily chomped down the toast in the evening light.
“But toast is more commonly eaten in the morning,” I added.
Guo Jian’s aunt piped in, right on cue, “Well, it’s morning in Canada right now, isn’t it?” And we all laughed.
Indeed it was.
And that is how toast made me look moderately domestic and stole the hearts of my then soon-to-be adopted family. So, this is my “toast to toast!” Well, I should also say thanks to the little kitschy oven that stood the test of time.
Still works like a charm!
So does the toast.